Less a film than a full-fledged personal exorcism, Tarnation calls to mind the trend toward video self-revelation that also drove last year’s horrific and riveting Capturing the Friedmans. Depicting a damaged and broken family caught in a firestorm of rage and accusations of child molestation, that film’s director Andrew Jarecki kept his distance from the family, letting their own raw video testimony anchor a puzzling, troubling documentary. Tarnation also mixes its subject’s own obsession with video documentation into its very structure, but director Jonathan Caouette is clearly determined to use the format to eviscerate the demons himself, and the sense of catharsis—so effectively withheld from Friedmans—is gushingly overwhelming.

Abandoned by his father before his birth, Caouette lived with his mother, a onetime child model, who had been temporarily paralyzed in a fall from a roof when she was a teenager.After her recovery, she was subjected to shock treatment off and on for years, which eventually lead to bouts of clinical depersonalization (defined as a persistent, dissociative feeling of being detached from one’s own body, as if observing it from outside).At the age of four, Jonathan accompanied his mother to Chicago, where the man who had taken them in raped her before his eyes.Upon their return to Texas, Jonathan was taken out of her care and dumped in a series of horrifically abusive foster homes.Around the age of ten, he was reunited with his maternal grandparents, who afforded this troubled youth some much-needed space for growth and some semblance of stability for the first time in his life.

What makes Jonathan’s story so moving is its tangible need for expression, a demand to which the filmmaker, now in his early thirties, has been responding all his life.A video camera becomes a near constant accessory from about the age of eleven, and the film includes many goofy set-up skits he directed with his grandparents as well as some haunting moments of macabre make-believe, as when adolescent Jonathan dresses up in lipstick and women’s clothing and performs the role of abused Southern-belle mother for the camera.

Jonathan’s lifelong need for dramatic expression combines with his own difficult personal history to make a harrowing filmed experience.Experimenting with hard drugs at around the same time he started frequenting gay clubs and making campy Super 8 films (age 13), Caouette has compiled an unsettling archive of his own life on film, a portrait of the troubled queer artist as a teenager that he essentially etches onto film.Moving from Texas to New York, he continues to deal with his mother’s illness as she develops brain damage from a lithium overdose. Jonathan begins to see creeping signs of depersonalization in his own life.

Famously made for $218 with iMovie software, Caouette showed the film to Gus Van Sant and Jonathan Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), whose decisions to executive produce allowed him to add a suitable soundtrack. The film is a swirl of fragmentary, schizophrenic imagery (strung together by third-person title card narration) which Caouette combines with a hissing, jagged soundtrack to create a terrifying document of human endurance.One of the most powerful examples of film as self-healing, Tarnation astonishes both as art and as testament.

– Jesse Paddock