Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax discusses making North by Current, a deeply personal documentary about his own family’s grieving process.
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For filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax, returning home to rural Michigan meant confronting his demons and helping to rebuild a fractured family unit. For years, he kept his distance from home, moving to the big city where he could embrace and explore his transgender identity away from his Mormon upbringing. About ten years ago, the death of his young niece, Kalla, changed everything. Minax returned home to support his grieving sister and parents. He was also there to fight against his brother-in-law’s prison sentence: his brother-in-law was accused of killing Kalla, a sentence which was later revoked when it was exposed that the police had covered up evidence. From this trying time, the project of making North by Current was born.
North by Current is a lyrical documentary, shot periodically between 2015 and 2021, capturing Minax and his family’s journey through grieving. Minax describes it as an “essay film”: it’s heavy on subjective voiceover, some of which is voiced by Minax himself, and some by an unidentified child narrator. It’s never explained who this child is: Are they an imagined version of Kalla? Minax or his sister as children? Or some other, omniscient being, here to provide a spiritual commentary on the situation? This ambiguous voiceover is part and parcel with the film’s singular perspective, more concerned with capturing a state of mind or a feeling than telling us everything about Minax and his family.
Minax has made a beautiful film in North by Current, but ultimately, the film itself is secondary to the process of making it. As Minax told me, “I wanted there to be an outlet for us to do something together that was not just survival. Those two years [after Kalla’s death] were basically just about staying alive, staying out of prison. That was a dire time.” Making a film allowed Minax to create a space for reflection and healing for the family unit. In the film, he doesn’t just work through the lasting trauma of Kalla’s death, but the wider unresolved trauma in his family, including the conflict with his parents regarding his transition.
As well as interviewing his family and capturing vérité footage of their lives, Minax films reenactments of their past. For example, in an early scene, we see him visit a diner with his sister, father, and mother, and watch as they sit in uncomfortable silence. When his father asks how long they need to keep doing this for, we realise (and Minax confirms in voiceover) that what we’re watching is a staged version of an event that happened years before, a few days after Kalla’s funeral. The scene was devised and filmed collaboratively with his family. These scenes give us some insight into the family’s past, but according to Minax, they were also just something fun to do together. After years of relearning how to function in the wake of grief, they got to do something constructive together by making a film.
I spoke with Angelo Madsen Minax over Zoom just days after North by Current’s in-person screening at the Berlinale Summer Special. It was one of two in-person screenings Minax had attended for the film, the other being at the Tribeca Film Festival — although the film has screened virtually at other festivals, such as Frameline, Tribeca, and Sheffield DocFest.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of North by Current?
Angelo Madsen Minax: I didn’t start filming until two years after my niece’s death. Those first two years were a pretty intense emotional rollercoaster. We were dealing with the police and the prison system. Filming was the last thing on my mind.
I filmed a little bit before 2015, when the film technically starts, [but it was] just getting people used to the camera and getting myself used to holding the camera. I’m not a big fan of getting up into people’s business [with the camera], so that took some learning, too.
I didn’t know what else to do with myself and my grief and my feelings. I was learning so much about my family [while I was] helping them through this time. I wanted to continue learning in a way that helped us move through what was happening to us. I was hoping the film would create a space for us to dialogue about lots of things, which it did. I wanted to create a platform where we could rebuild some things that have been pretty broken for a while. Repairing those relationships was my main priority.
I had worked on lots of projects before with my close friends; I usually only work with my close friends, actually. It felt like a natural extension to be like, why wouldn’t that work with my family? It worked with my chosen family for years. It’s definitely a scarier move to work with [my family], but nothing gets me more excited than something that feels really challenging, with a lot of potential for reward.
I felt that there was so much about this place, this time, this experience, this location that was not [just] about me. It was about issues that lots of people have to deal with in their lives: addiction, domestic violence, fundamentalism, the place you come from. Those are all really accessible issues. A lot of my films don’t deal with accessible issues at all. They can be sort of academic. or slightly hard to access for an everyday viewer. I felt the combination of issues [North by Current] posed would allow me to make a project that’s more accessible.
7R: You describe yourself as having made experimental films. Would you or would you not describe North by Current as experimental?
Angelo Madsen Minax: I wouldn’t really. It’s really narrative. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and follows a chronology of years. It does some formal play, for sure; it unfolds more like peeling an onion than it does [with] an act structure. It’s using some formal principles that stem from non-narrative cinema. But ultimately, it feels pretty narrative to me.
I think it depends on what kind of audience you’re talking to. If I was to take this film to a very experimental film festival, like Images, it would be considered quite narrative. At a film festival like Tribeca, it’s quite experimental.
7R: Maybe in the context of narrative fiction films, North by Current feels less experimental, because it’s an intimate story told through a subjective lens. When you put it with other documentary films, it might be considered a bit more out there. But I think that our definitions of what a documentary is has rapidly expanded in the last ten years.
Angelo Madsen Minax: Yeah, I feel like in the [context of the] last ten years, it’s not that out there for documentary anymore.
I think nonfiction is a better-fitting title than documentary, just because it allows for some expansion of the medium. But even then, I hate claiming things as nonfiction when they’re so highly constructed. [North by Current is] so intensely constructed. Half the time, people think they’re watching complete scenes, but they’re [actually] watching something that’s been assembled and piecemeal. [For example,] the whole scene [might have] been constructed in a way to suggest that the [visual] scene is actually playing out as the audio plays out [when the video and audio are actually from two completely different days and times].
7R: I’ve heard you use the term ‘essay film’ to describe North by Current. What does that term mean to you?
Angelo Madsen Minax: To me, an essay film is a film that uses voice as some sort of narrative guidepost. People talk about films that are essayistic, or visual essays, but to me, an essay film is really about voice and text. It’s lyrical in the language sense. And the language of the film — the actual text language, not the cinematic language — is one of the primary stylistic components.
An essay film is using language to offer a separate node of information from what you’re getting in the visuals. In ‘documentary’, what you’re getting is an illustration or demonstration or narration that’s describing to you what you’re seeing on screen, perhaps through voiceover. An essay film, in my opinion, would never describe what’s on screen. [An essay film] would offer a separate node of information [in voiceover from the information provided by the visual], that then creates a third node of juxtaposition between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing.
That third thing [which is what can be inferred from the juxtaposition between the audio and the visual] is what I’m most interested in, because that’s what a viewer has to juggle and take away. That’s also the thing they have to decide on their own, which is what tends to make essay films, in my opinion, a little riper for criticality. You have to be a more active viewer to gather the information.
7R: When you embarked on making North by Current, what conversations did you have with your family about the boundaries of this project and their relationship to the camera? It’s a very intimate thing that you’re filming.
Angelo Madsen Minax: I just put the camera down a lot. I didn’t want them to ever feel like there was no room for us to just experience ourselves and that it was about filming all the time. I have a ton of footage, but I don’t have the amount of footage that many people who make vérité films have, because I wasn’t just shooting all the time.
A lot of the film actually happens in the retelling of things. The first forty-five minutes of the film is [mostly] retelling. Many of those things have already happened. The film is happening from a very constructed, codified, scheduled place. [We preplan that] we’re sitting down to talk, or we’re going to the bowling alley so I can shoot us bowling.
Some of the moments we capture as they happen where there’s a lot of, for lack of a better term, ‘drama’ happening, were accidental, because an audio recorder was rolling while I was setting up or something. Or they were things that were just shot on my phone in the moment. But most things were not set up with cameras.
Also, I never use lights. (laughs) I shoot in a very DIY way. I always have. I think that comes through in the film. There’s lots of footage that’s very beautiful and high quality, [juxtaposed with] a shot from my phone that I placed behind me while I was shooting with a camera, and the light is very low, or whatever.
There was never a time that I can remember when they were like, “Please don’t shoot.” My own natural impulse is to back away sooner. If I had a hired cameraperson, or if I was working with a DP, someone else’s impulse might be to push a little bit. Mine was to stop before I felt any push. The nature of it all is so fragile. When you’re trying to do something to build a dynamic, the last thing you want to do is injure it.
7R: You talked about retellings. I’m assuming that some of that is verbally recounting things that have happened. Also, there’s the staged scenes, where you reenact moments from the past with your family. How did you choose which moments you wanted to reenact? How did your family, who aren’t used to ‘acting’ on camera, navigate those shoots?
Angelo Madsen Minax: What I wanted most out of the reenactments was this total sense of the banal; the everyday motions that are not so memorable. So much of storytelling is about only picking up the most high-drama moments, especially with regard to people thinking about their childhoods. When we decide what gets catalogued into a memory bank and what doesn’t, the things that go in are similar to the things that go into home movies: birthdays, celebrations, parties, funerals, fights. It’s these high-activity moments.
But those are actually not the ones that make up most of our lives. Most of our lives are really banal moments. Sometimes, those really banal moments can be connected to something more significant. Those were the moments that I was most interested in.
7R: You also reveal the process of putting together the staged scenes within the film itself. Why did you want to do that — to show the staged scenes themselves and the ‘making of’ those scenes?
Angelo Madsen Minax: I like to think about the film as ‘first person vérité’. I’m behind the camera, and I’m always engaged with the ‘subjects’. I can’t not be because of my position in the family structure. I didn’t want to ever pretend like that didn’t exist. It was really important for me to actively acknowledge the fact that I couldn’t be an objective viewer. Having a consistent awareness of my presence in the reenactments felt important to me.
I think part of that, too, was wanting those reenactments to demonstrate a different way of us understanding our relationship to this collective process [of filmmaking]. The reenactments are something we did together. They were fun. As weird as they were, they were fun. We got to do this goofy thing. It was something outside of their day-to-day activities that we got to develop together.
7R: You shot North by Current over about five or six years. In that time, did the intention of this project change? Or did you know from the beginning what you wanted to achieve?
Angelo Madsen Minax: I wanted to try to understand my family differently. I wanted us to have better relationships. And I wanted to move through some of the things that were holding me back from having the kinds of relationships with them that I wanted.
I wanted there to be an outlet for us to do something together that was not just survival. Those two years before I started filming were basically just about staying alive, staying out of prison. That was a dire time.
At the beginning, I wanted to make something that was a little bit more of a commentary on rural white masculinity, police brutality in rural white places, and how that looks different. I went into it with some more political motivations. But I also work with autoethnography all the time, so it’s not surprising to me that I took it in the [more personal, self-reflective] direction.
It changed a lot over the course of that time. I was editing and feeling it out as I was going: what was productive and what was not. For example, my sister doesn’t talk about Kalla’s death ever in the film. That’s because, I realised as we got into filming, that it wasn’t helpful for her. I had to rethink things. I was constantly adjusting expectations for what was happening, as opposed to trying to [capture] some idea that I [wanted to have]. Which, I think, is the only way to make a film: to constantly be adjusting your expectations based on what’s available to you. If you go in with this idea, and then try to marry yourself to that idea, you’re going to be sorely disappointed when you’re working with other people, because you can’t predict what is going to be best for people.
7R: The editing process must have been a mammoth task. You were editing as you shot North by Current?
Angelo Madsen Minax: Yeah, I was editing basically all the time. The first big shoot I did, I started cutting that right away, at the beginning of 2016. I just kept cutting the whole time. It wasn’t until probably a year-and-a-half ago that it found the form it needed to be in.
I was only able to find that when I started doing intensive sound design at the same time as I was cutting. I usually do all the sound for myself, and I usually do all the music composition, as well. With this project, I was like, no, it’s a bigger scale, I’m going to get money and somebody else will do it and blah, blah, blah. But I couldn’t cut the film without also doing the sound, which was interesting.
My composer [Julien Baker] was delivering me lots of mixes while I was editing. She would give me stems so I could essentially produce the mixes the way I wanted to, which was really important. It was a lot of collaborative composing.
7R: I’m curious to hear a bit more about the sound design and score and how that shaped your approach to making North by Current.
Angelo Madsen Minax: I really wanted to [create] this dense tension between organic and inorganic sounds, like the sound of a metal flagpole clanking and the sound of a sawmill. Those are organic sounds that very, very easily can be transposed into inorganic sounds, especially the ones that are a little bit more noisy. I wanted to highlight and really bring that tension between the organic and inorganic in the audio to the work.
Julien Baker [the film’s composer], I love her work. I love her music; I’m a big fan. I used to live in Memphis [where Baker is from], where we have a really good friend in common. That’s how I was able to get Julien on board. My friend made a personal introduction.
I sent [Julien] a very, very rough edit. I was really nervous about it, because you want to send someone the most polished thing you can, and it wasn’t. But she was totally on board. She called, like, “I’m ready. Let’s go.” It was awesome. It really spoke to her, because she’s really close to her family. Her dad is a minister, she’s from the south, and she’s queer.
I also wanted a mixture of music that felt a little bit electronic or artificial, but also felt super organic, in the same way that the soundscape would. The sound of the piano was really important to me, even though it’s so subtle. When you listen to the score, you don’t think of a Debussy piano score, or whatever crap. I kind of hate piano scores, in general. But the way it comes in at these certain, very specific moments really helps pull lots of things together. At the beginning [of the film], there’s a video of me as a kid playing this concerto, and then the piano [sound] reappears in the forest. Having those echoes between the soundscape and the visual [was important].
7R: I’m assuming that you had planned to use some form of voiceover in North by Current from the beginning. But when did the second voiceover, the child’s voice, come into play?
Angelo Madsen Minax: I was taking phone memos [of my voiceover] the whole time I was editing, and I was just dropping [them into the editing timeline].
From basically the beginning, I had wanted to do this child voiceover. It felt really natural to have this child’s voice, because it could be a stand-in for my niece, or a stand-in for myself as a child, or a stand-in for my sister as a child, or some sort of omniscient [presence] that I wanted to bring to the film, just to echo some of the more faith-based ideas. I am also super inspired by Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim (1990). She has a child narrator in that film; it’s a very traditional essay film.
The voiceover was all over the place for, like, three years. I had a really hard time with it. I wanted to use it subjectively, and [for it to be] explanatory when necessary, but I also wanted to use it as a lyrical mode of reflection. Once I decided to totally relegate my own personal voice to subjectivity and allow the kid voice to do all the reflection, it got a lot easier to parse things out. For a while, it was like, I would say something super poetic in my voiceover, and then I would go back to something subjective; I think it would have made for a slightly less accessible film.
7R: Now that North by Current is finished, people have seen it, and you have room to reflect, what do you feel was the impact of the project on yourself and your family? My sense from watching it and hearing you speak is that it was in some way helpful with your healing process. Do you think that was the case?
Angelo Madsen Minax: Totally. My relationships with my family members are so much stronger. We have such ease of communication because I don’t feel like I’m carrying around this fucking baggage in the same way. People spend their whole lives trying to process their fucking childhood baggage, you know? Some people take that shit to the grave unresolved. I’m not saying that you have to have some type of closure, necessarily. I don’t think there’s closure at all. But I do have some resolution to things I was carrying with me for a long time. I feel like a huge weight has been taken off my body and my brain. It was a kind of exorcism.
In Berlin, another filmmaker was talking to me afterwards, and she said, “Your sister is such a badass. She’s so strong and funny and cool. I want to hang out with her.” I was just like, yes! She is funny and smart and interesting, even though she’s dealing with all these complicated layers of trauma.
People are full of contradictions. That’s what makes somebody a person, to be a boiling mess of discrepancies. There’s something really liberating about laying that out there. We’re walking through our lives every day pretending to be whole, when actually, we’re pretty fractured beings. My parents watched the film, and they loved it. Part of the reason they loved it is because it was so nuanced, which is one of the words they used. It’s so much about having an experience, being alive in a body and growing up, and the way your relationships are complicated. They really appreciated that complexity and that lack of judgment. People bring their own judgment all the time as viewers, but it’s not coming from me or from the film. It’s coming from what people want to read into it, or how they want to spin it.
7R: I’ll be really curious to hear what happens when you do get to show North by Current to more audiences and have conversations about it. I’m sure, with a film that’s so personal, talking to people outside of your family, whom you’ve never met, about the film must be fascinating.
Angelo Madsen Minax: The only thing I’ve experienced so far is that folks tend to feel entitled to ask you personal questions that are not about the film. It’s a little bit challenging. I had a couple of questions like that, although I’ve only shown the film twice in person.
I don’t mind questions like, “How’s your sister doing?,” but it’s not my favourite question to answer, because I then have to be like, “Well, not great!” It’s like, what kind of answer are you hoping for? Did you want a specific answer to make you feel better because you’re sad after watching the movie?
Certainly, I don’t want to be an ungenerous Q&Aer and be like, “Why are you asking me that question?” I think it is an interesting cause for reflection, what information viewers feel entitled to.
7R: It’s interesting that they watch the film and feel like they know you more than perhaps they do, given the film is a construction.
Angelo Madsen Minax: Yeah, totally. And the other thing is that I’m playing the role of an unreliable narrator quite a bit in the film, [in order] to pose certain ideas. This person [at a Q&A] was like, “How could you think you have no empathy?!” [In the film, Minax questions his own empathy in voiceover.] And I was like, I don’t think that! If I thought that, I couldn’t make a film like this. I’m posing that as a question for you to ponder!
Part of that is that folks are not always used to having to be active viewers. They’re not having to ask themselves if something is true or not, especially in a documentary context. Moments when there’s an unreliable narrator help to remind people that they should be asking themselves those questions.
7R: What are you working on next?
Angelo Madsen Minax: I’m working on a couple of short things that I started during the pandemic that I don’t really know what they are yet. That’s usually how I work best. I’ll know what they are when they’re done.
I’m also working on a new feature called A Body to Live In. It’s a film that uses the life and work of Fakir Musafarto ask larger questions about the relationship between body and spirit and how people have used the history of body modification to access spirituality. It’s going to use a lot of his archival footage. It will start with being more about him, specifically, and then it’s going to open up and be about a bunch of younger artists that are using body modification in different ways.
7R: That sounds fascinating. Do you know roughly when it will be done and out in the world?
Angelo Madsen Minax: My guess is maybe in three or four years. I just got the archive last year, and I’ve been trying to go through it. But with finishing North by Current and now all the festivals, I just have no time. I’m supposed to do preliminary interviews in December and January. They’re probably not going to be shot; I’m just going to do audio recordings.
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