In Mark Wojahn’s new documentary Trampoline, which screened Wednesday at the Heights Theatre, husband (and stepfather of four) Nathaniel muses to the camera that maybe the world is divided into two types of people: those who have teenagers, and those who don’t.
By that point in the film, we’ve seen a girl jump angrily on a trampoline while holding a snow shovel, another girl explain how she set her leg on fire while on Valium, a boy babbling in an exaggerated French accent to a handheld camera while in a bathtub, and another boy talking about chugging vodka through a beer bong. Maybe the idea of a separate, foreign world inhabited only by teenagers and those trying to raise them isn’t so far-fetched.
Trampoline takes us deep inside this world, or really this family. There’s Osla, bohemian mother of four; Nathaniel, her husband of 12 years; and the teenagers, Chanel, Wolfgang, Tabitha, and Johann. The family relocated from Australia some years before the events of the documentary, moving to a three-story fixer-upper in the Twin Cities. Wojahn, a family friend, spent a year filming the family, and ultimately captured not only the intense energy and recklessness of the kids but the disintegration of their mother and stepfather’s marriage.
Because Wojahn had so much access—he even had his own room in the house—he’s able to get up close and personal with the family’s highs and lows. He’s right there when Tabitha talks about taking crack and heroin or when Johann and his buddies light stuff on fire in the backyard. And he and his camera are standing in the room when the family has its climactic, emotional meeting to discuss Nathaniel and Osla’s separation.
Despite all of the darkness on display, Trampoline isn’t a total downer. As a family friend interviewed onscreen notes, the family is cheerful about their dysfunctions, even proud of them– “they’re like an Addams Family,” he says. Scored with local music from artists like Solid Gold and M.anifest, the film moves briskly and has many laugh-out-loud moments, even if some of the laughter is mixed with horror.
When Osla or Nathaniel vent about their marital problems, it’s impossible to tell whether they’re speaking to the camera as surrogate therapist or to Wojahn as their friend. Wojahn himself described his dual role as “a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. They knew going in that I was both of those people.” But he asks himself the same question that lingers for the viewer once the credits roll: Did the camera merely capture the inevitable end of a marriage? Or did its presence—an added pressure, an outlet for the couple’s long-gestating frustrations—help bring that end about?
Perhaps a bigger question is how it must feel to have such a film made about your own family. Wolfgang Tattenbach, the older of the family’s two boys, was present for both the post-screening Q&A at the Heights and the afterparty at Wojahn’s studio in the Casket Arts Building. He readily admitted that coming to terms with a film has been a process for each family member, and that they begged to have certain scenes taken out.
“If you’re not offending anyone, it’s not art, and it offends me, so it’s art,” Wolfgang said. But he added, “The more I’ve gone to events and the more I’ve heard people say, ‘I really related to that,’ the more I feel like it’s a contribution, not just a snapshot of our lives.”
Wojahn also hopes that the film will have a meaningful message for viewers, not just the family themselves. Though he doesn’t have distribution for the film yet, he hopes it will find an audience on DVD, especially with those on Nathaniel’s “people who have teenagers” side of society.
“Anyone who’s thinking about having kids should see this movie, to see if they have the right stuff,” he said. “And I hope it’s something people can watch with their kids, to talk about these issues. That’s what documentaries do. They start a conversation.”