Jonathan Caouette

Tarnation

Interviewed by Stephen Applebaum

“The film has literally gone from my desktop computer to a worldwide distribution deal in less than a year! ”

It's fair to say that there has never been a documentary like Tarnation. As a child, Johnathan Caouette picked up a camera and used it to document his life in a Texas family blighted by his mother Renee's mental illness. Drawing on a personal archive compiled over more than two decades and using editing software on his home computer, Caouette has put together an extraordinary film memoir that is both a love letter to his mother, and an exploration of how one bad move - his grandparents' decision to submit their daughter to electric shock therapy - can wreck a life.

What has filmmaking done for you?

Without it I would have been dead in the gutter. I just know it. When I first picked up a camera aged 11, it was a little bit out of innocence and a little bit out of wanting to make horror films. The first idea I had was to do a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with me and my friends, and that's actually in Tarnation. Then around the time I was 14 or 15, it became more of a sense of urgency to have a camera, when I started inadvertently turning it on my family and they became characters in my own sort of living movie. It was urgency in the sense that the camera allowed me to feel that I had a sense of control over what it was that I was growing up with, and being subjected to. It was also a way to confirm and validate that what was happening was really happening.

There is a sense of you trying throughout Tarnation to get at the truth of what happened to your mother. However, she is often reluctant to speak about her experiences on camera.

I have always been trying to get the truth and make sense of what happened. And I'm still trying to get the truth. It's unfortunate because there is really nobody of sound mind that I'm able to obtain the truth from now. My grandfather has the beginning stages of Alzheimer's, my mother's my mother, and my extended family don't want to have anything to do with us because we're sort of the black sheep. So I can only play the idea of what I think the truth is based on my own experiences.

For how long did you film your family at a time? Some of the stuff in the film is almost too intimate.

Well, I knew when enough was enough for their sake. You know it's weird. I have acquired about 160 hours of footage and making this movie was initially a very private and cathartic thing I was doing at night, when I was working as a doorman. The film has literally gone from my desktop computer to a 35 mm worldwide distribution deal in less than a year! I mean this is quite a change, I have to say.

Your mother accuses your late grandmother of physically abusing her. You were raised by your grandparents - could she have done what your mother claims?

Honestly, I don't know. I don't think they were as abusive to her to the magnitude that she accuses. I never felt for one moment that any of these people didn't love each other or love me. Even with the shock treatments that my grandparents inflicted on my mother, I never thought it was out of vindictiveness, just out of being not so very educated and being prone to the power of suggestion. But as far as the truth, I don't think I will ever really know the truth. I can keep looking.

You say in the film that it's a matter of record that Renee was not ill before she started receiving shock treatment.

Yeah, I actually have some medical records that show a sort of timeline. I have based a lot on stories that I have from my mother and various friends and acquaintances she had in junior high that gave me information, but I definitely know the shock treatments were real. I definitely know that she did fall off a roof at 12 and then the shock treatments happened. I think it might have been a case of her maybe just doing acid once or something. I think she was just maybe a bit of a wild child, but I don't think there was anything wrong with her.

What does Tarnation mean, exactly?

The title just came to me while I was editing one night. Tarnation is an old-time Southern interjection meaning "Hell" or "Damn". So it's like Southern Hell, the experience of being damned, etc. It's also the name of one of my favourite bands.

You're next playing a character called Seymour Cox in a movie called Fat Girls. What's that all about?

After the craziness of making Tarnation and putting it around the world, the idea of acting in someone else's film would be like a vacation for me. Ash Christian is a young, gay, Texas filmmaker who I met at a film festival, who basically wrote this part for me in this ultra-low-budget, gay coming-of-age film he was directing and starring in, and he asked me to do it. I was delighted! So I spent a week in Waxahatchie, Texas, acting the part of the local drama teacher in a high school who has a few secrets. I love acting and want to do as much of that as I can as I continue filmmaking.

Tarnation is released in UK cinemas on Friday 22nd April 2005.

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