Layered Losses: Angelo Madsen Minax Interviewed by Megan Milks

The filmmaker’s latest work is a deeply personal story of family loss in which art-making becomes a tool for repair.

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Still from North by Current, 2021. Directed by Angelo Madsen Minax. Courtesy of the artist.

Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax first gained critical attention for his documentary Riot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music (2010), which captured the lives of trans and gender-variant musicians in the mid-oughts. His output since has been steady and consistently startling: a series of distinctly experimental films that are boldly conceived, acutely intimate, and kind of (or very) weird. Among my favorites are Kairos Dirt and the Errant Vacuum (2017), a trippy transtemporal romance, and The Eddies (2018), which juxtaposes two vastly different encounters with men named Eddie.

I’ve been anticipating Minax’s new film for a long time. North by Current (2021) is a deeply personal and quite stunning story of family loss in which art-making becomes a tool for repair. The film begins by documenting the aftermath of a court case against the filmmaker’s brother-in-law, who was charged in the death of Minax’s two-year-old niece. After the charges are dropped, Minax returns to his rural Michigan hometown to chronicle the strain of the case on his family; but he finds the story changing as he confronts his own complex relationships with his sister and parents.

I sat down with Minax in his Bed-Stuy apartment, where we spoke of loss and grief, cycles and seasons, and collaboration as a way to enact love.

—Megan Milks

Megan MilksThe film is structured in a generally linear sequence, advancing yearly from 2016 to 2020. Can you tell me how you structured the shooting itself?

Angelo Madsen MinaxI didn’t know it was going to take six years to make when I started it. I thought I would tell a succinct story about my brother-in-law’s wrongful imprisonment and police persecution, and use that as a way to open up larger ideas about white, rural masculinity and the carceral body within that context.

When I started shooting, it became impossible to keep my personal mess out of it. I’m not an objective person holding a camera; I’m a participant in this family unit. That results in me talking from behind the camera a lot, which is not typical of traditional verité. So my own preexisting relationships quickly became much more of a motivating narrative element. It was impossible for my parents to think about losses without bringing me into the conversation.

MMTheir loss of … (points to Madsen)

AMM(nods) The first time I interviewed them, they said the thing about my transition being a loss. [In the film Minax’s parents articulate their grief at the loss of “two little girls”—not just his niece, Kalla, but also Minax’s younger self.] From then on out, that was all I could think about. The fact that I had to look at layers of losses became the crux of my own motivation, more so than this idea of policing and rural, white masculinity.

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Still from North by Current, 2021. Directed by Angelo Madsen Minax. Courtesy of the artist.

MMHow did you structure the shooting itself? Did you go back at a specific time every year?

AMM I tried to go back as often as I could, but it was imperative to go back at least four times a year to correspond with the seasons, because the seasonal transformations are so important to the film. The whole course of the film goes from winter at the beginning to summer at the end. Even though I’m moving through the span of multiple years, I needed to make sure that I had enough to make the film do that from beginning to end—instead of yearly, because that would be way too hectic. And that meant reshooting some things and staging some things.

MMYou use two different voiceover devices in the film: your own narration and an unnamed character-entity, The Child. Where did The Child come from as a device?

AMMMy own voiceover was wavering intensely between being subjective-expository and being more lyrical-detached. In other projects I can ride that line from being hyperexpository to totally vague, but because I’m a character in this, on screen all the time, and I’m talking behind the camera, it was challenging for me to develop a voice for narration that felt whole without feeling like it was fragmenting my character.

So I cultivated this other character who could be a stand-in for my dead niece, a stand-in for me as a child, or a stand-in for a neighborhood kid looking in the window watching this thing unfold—this voice that could be a stand-in for so many different ideas of observation, and that also would play the role of God a little bit with its particular type of omniscience.

Once I decided to do the child voice, things started getting easier for my own voiceover because I could just relate my own subjective experience or fill in bits and pieces for clarity.

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Still from North by Current, 2021. Directed by Angelo Madsen Minax. Courtesy of the artist.

MMOne of my favorite moments in the film is when your mother describes your work as “vile.” Knowing something of the work that she’s talking about, I see why she might call it that—not that I agree.

I’ve always been impressed and inspired by the ways in which you go there with your work. Kairos Dirt and The Source Is a Hole (2017) are both wild and unruly and pretty fucking radical in their explorations of desire and intimacy. North by Current is no different in that it gets to a place of deep pain, open inquiry, and radical honesty. Where does desire show up in the film?

AMMThe desire is in its older sibling: love. Everything about the film is wrapped up in that, trying to—not understand love, but perform love. To be able to carry love out in action. The film is about trying to figure out how to make love tangible.

Sometimes I replace the word “desire” with “love” because it offers a little more edge, but I don’t think that, for me and my work, there is a huge difference. When I talk about desire emanating from my dad’s nuts in The Source Is a Hole, I’m also really talking about how I love my dad.

The same thing can be said for North by Current. There’s desire as motivation—that’s a different thing—and it’s attached to the desire to be able to actualize love in a way that has felt lacking. What the film does too is reveal that the love has not necessarily been lacking, but has not been able to be put into action. In a Hollywood movie, the point would be like, “There was no love, and now there’s love!” But this is very subtle. There’s always love; it’s just in various moments more or less difficult to express.

MMThis seems to be among the most, if not the most, narratively structured of your films.

AMMTotally.

MMIt’s very invested in tracing out a story, even though it’s also calling into question that process. I’m curious how you think about narrative in your work, especially as it relates to, or maybe is in tension with, some of the wilder, more experimental modes of your filmmaking.

AMMI had a strong commitment at the beginning of the project to make something that would be more audience accessible. That’s the one thing that made it to the end of the film. Obviously some people think it’s not accessible, but I think it is, because it’s fucking narrative as hell.

Investing in narrative form was the thing I set out to do, and one of the goals and structures that kept me making the choices I was making.

The film took lots of different turns because I was invested in the narrative form. When my sister didn’t want to talk to me about Kalla’s death at all, instead of being like, “I guess I can’t do that now,” I was like, “I’m not giving up on the narrative, so I’ll just reframe.” I reframed it many, many times to be able to parcel out a story using the footage I had while not pushing anyone in a direction to do anything, which was really important.

MMThat was one of my questions.

AMMBasically I made the film without any big asks. At the same time, you can say the whole fucking thing is a big ask. But I didn’t push. I didn’t try to coerce anything.

MMWhat other guidelines did you establish for yourself?

AMMThe main guideline was just like, nothing’s that important. If something fucked up is happening, me filming it is really not that important. That’s why so much of the film is in the retelling of things. The whole film has the nature of retelling. The few moments where there are what might be considered high-drama moments where things are being captured—those are there because an audio recorder was rolling while I was prepping for something else. Not because I went and got the camera.

MMWhat events are you thinking about?

AMMWhen my sister overdoses in the bathroom, there’s no visual of it. There’s no visual because there was no camera. It’s just an audio recording.

MMThe filmmaking process affects and even creates the story here, in that your presence and the camera’s presence begin to, at least in the way it’s framed, kind of unlock things that have been suppressed. In many ways film makes a case for artmaking as a tool for healing and repair. Did you go into it with that goal in mind?

AMMI totally did. During the process of making Kairos Dirt and The Year I Broke My Voice—films where I worked with other people a lot—I learned so much about my own relationships to those people. I always prefer to work with my friends and loved ones. That’s always been part of my process. I tend to hire and work with people that I love and care about, regardless of their skillsets or accomplishments.

I took that same approach in working with my family. I had been feeling pretty disconnected from them for the ten years leading up to that. The way I showed up when my niece died and managed the funeral and took care of logistics, I felt like my parents were like, “When did you grow up?” And I realized: “You don’t know me, and you haven’t known me for a long time, because we have this thing between us.”

So I thought, what if I transpose this idea that I’ve always had about community-building with my films, with my friendships, onto my family structure? And it worked. It did the same fucking thing.

It absolutely fostered its own type of community-building within the family. It was an example of us coming together to work on something that was not directly related to our own survival. Instead, we were making this other thing.

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Still from North by Current, 2021. Directed by Angelo Madsen Minax. Courtesy of the artist.

MMWas it a hard sell for your family?

AMMNo, they were into it from beginning. My sister is funny because she loves to pretend that everything is a total drag, but then she becomes a ham. The same with my dad. He likes to pretend everything’s a drag, but then is like, “Do you want to get it from this angle?” I think we did have fun, even when things were really hard. The fact that we were just making something offered a kind of ease.

MMIt’s almost a protection in a way.

AMMExactly. I don’t think I would have been interested in opening up hard conversations without that veil of the camera. 

Angelo Madsen Minax’s North by Current will be screening at Berlin International Film Festival on June 17. Purchase tickets here.

Megan Milks is the author of the novel Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body and the nonfiction book Remember the Internet #2: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring, both forthcoming in September 2021.

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