Published on December 2nd, 2021 | by Meg Lemke0
Relentless Grief in Limitless Time: A Conversation with Angelo Madsen Minax about NORTH BY CURRENT
The death of a child is captivating; it stops time. We know that popular culture and media luxuriates in the fascination of the particular tragedy of a child’s loss despite it being tragically common enough, replaying graphic details while perhaps feigning a pearl-clutch or shrouding candid discussion (often begged for by those who are left in grief.)
As a mother, I don’t want to think about children dying and I think about it all the time.
I encountered the entry for Angelo Madsen Minax’s film North By Current at the Tribeca Film fest, which is now streaming on PBS’ POV. It opens with a reflection on the circumstances of the death of Minax’s nice, Kalla. What struck me was how forcefully the film positioned itself, and marketed itself, against any assumptions of the true crime genre.
When a film resists genre conventions, a viewer doesn’t know what they’re getting into. And that seems accurate to the layered experiences of grief. What unfolds (or sometimes folds in, or folds time in a true sci-fi sense) are genre-defying/stereotype-defying scenes shot through Minax’s complex and sometimes magical lens on his family and their faith and ways they mother each other (or don’t), interwoven with Super 8 home videos, long panning shots of Michigan backwoods, weather reports, surreal images, static.
Minax interviews his sister, Jesse, and her husband, David (Kalla’s stepfather), who has been released from prison following an overturned conviction for Kalla’s death. He interviews his parents. And what are assumed to be the directions of these dialogues breaks down in rewind. A child’s voice intones over the dreamier landscape scenes with a faery clairvoyant sing-song, soothing (while also, I found, deeply unsettling). The voice acts as a kind of philosophical guide, posing and pondering existential questions.
There’s a lot here to talk about. And I was grateful to Madsen for sitting down with me to do just that, and discuss how, as a trans filmmaker probing his own relationship to his sister (a mother) and mother, and the family’s shared griefs, he addresses caregiving and mothering and its vulnerability. As the Brooklyn Rail writes, “Through his depiction of the multiplicity of motherhood, the transience of nature, and the liminality of religion, Minax shows us how very queer these concepts are.”
MUTHA: My understanding is that you had an idea going in of an expected theme or trajectory in the film, and then that changed during the filming. Can you talk about that process?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: Especially if people are working on something over a course of time: things shift, access shifts, motivation shifts, ideas about the world shift, framework shifts. So it’s not uncommon for a film to be entered as one thing, and then exit as another. People don’t tend to draw attention to that, even though that’s usually how most films are made. When I started working on the film, I had the idea that maybe it would be a very experimental piece, landscape portraits with a voiceover; I had an idea that it could be a very conventional piece used to mobilize abolition work around the justice system and prison. I had ideas that it could be used for Critical Race studies with regard to whiteness. But part of what I do in the film is this unreliable narrator trope. There’s that line in the film where I say, “I set out to do this, but really, I’m doing this” and that’s only half true. Throughout the film, I say half truths, and some things that are just not true.
But it wasn’t that I completely set out to do something different; it was that I did not know what was going to unravel and what threads were going to be most compelling for me. As I was shooting, things started shifting: David [Kalla’s stepfather] was less interested in in spending time with me. And my sister was not interested in having conversations about Kalla. So some of the ideas that the film would be more explicitly about grief or more explicitly about the prison experience floated away. Really, the film is a kind of constant recalibration of what is possible in response what desires we have. My core guiding thoughts are ideas and not stories; stories are what documentary people like to talk about. I like to talk about ideas, because I come from the art world—or at least that’s how I rationalize my interests. Everyone likes to have ideas, I guess, but I just don’t think as narratively.
MUTHA: So you explicitly don’t think of yourself as a documentary filmmaker?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: I would never say I’m a documentary filmmaker.
I call myself a cross-disciplinary artist, or a multidisciplinary artist.
MUTHA: The film resists narrative, but as someone who appreciates narrative, it definitely has a narrative. There are twists and turns. As we do the interview, I find I’m concerned about spoilers, which would speak to it being a narrative, right? But you interrupt it, with a different artistic lens and some poetic liberty.
There’s two prominent mother figures in the film, your sister and your own mother, who are also both raised in a faith tradition that values strictly heteronormative roles and cisgendered identities of women and motherhood. How were you unpacking or addressing those roles and also the real relationships you have with both of them?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: There’s a Brooklyn Rail piece about the film that talks about all the ways you can mother or be mothered, and that was the first time I’d seen that critical engagement. We’re often in our lives put in positions to do our own mothering. Like when our parents can’t show up for us. And by “can’t show up for us,” I don’t mean are neglectful or abusive, but literally can’t show up because they’re human beings having their own experiences in the world. We all do this Tetris-ing to collage care for each other. My sister is a super complicated human being, because she doesn’t emote. But there’s many levels of trauma; viewers of the film are getting a specific window into a series of events that do not encapsulate the breadth of the traumas that she has experienced. The loss of the Kalla is the tip of the iceberg. Her response to grief is cumulative. She’s still walking that line between what she is in control of and what she’s not in control of…and that disrupts capacity for care. What I think is clear in the film is that she has a deep love for children. But there are moments when she can’t show up.
MUTHA: It’s clear that there’s a caregiving culture around the children, and that it includes you. You come forward as a caregiving figure, in the film, but explicitly not as “a mother.”
There’s moments where it seems that the camera is present for the kids in a way that the parents aren’t able, giving them space to ask about some of the unspoken.
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: The footage in the film is so limited in scope from the reality of the lived experience, and from what was captured. But the kids are there revealing what everyone else won’t say. Over and over again.
MUTHA: I hear you grappling with having to edit the film, because it’s also your family.
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: This one was extra hard, because I want them to be happy with how they are represented. No creative product is worth causing suffering. Exploring suffering, probing suffering—totally. But causing: no.
I focused on making a film that reflected my love and care while it also reflected my criticality at the same time. Everyone gets to be wonderful and terrible. And that’s life. Everyone is wonderful and terrible. It’s harder to strike a good balance between wonderful and terrible rather than just show one or the other, so that’s the dance that I spent most of my editing time doing.
MUTHA: It’s an impossible task to make your family happy with everything you create, particularly if it’s about them.
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: I should maybe replace “happy” with “accepting.”
MUTHA: Did you talk to your sister about speaking in the voice of Kalla?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: I never positioned that voice as “Kalla’s voice.” I was always careful to position that voice as the narration of an omniscient child. This voice can be a stand-in for Kalla, it can be a stand-in for myself as a child, it can be a stand-in for Jesse, it can be a stand-in for anyone. It’s also a pretty non-gendered voice, as most prepubescent voices are.
But, I talked to my parents more than my sister about the editing of the film. I talked to her about the logistics of shooting and production, but when I went into a cave and did my thing editing, I talked to my parents. Because their memories function linearly and my sister’s don’t.
MUTHA: Your family is Mormon. Your dad mentions that your mother testifies about you [in church]. I viewed her as trying to create and live in this duality of being a parent to her particular children and taking on Mormon motherhood. Did you have ideas about how she portrays herself as a “mother figure” in the film?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: My parents are an interesting example of Mormonism. The reason I’m even able to engage with them creatively like this is because they’re also creative weirdos. I don’t want to say that they’re bad Mormons. But throughout their lives, they have valued things differently than stereotypes that you might assign to people who are spiritual.
I was really into church as a little kid. As soon as I hit puberty and all the gender regulating started, I bowed out, and my parents didn’t pressure me to continue. They also were less active in the church for a period. But when Kalla died, that became a rekindling.
People are funny in the ways they talk about Mormonism, which is based on particular protocols, which are what get all the attention. Christians and Jews get to be cafeteria practitioners, to pick and choose [within their faith traditions] and Mormons do the same thing. Plenty of Mormons feel like one aspect resonates and not others and make their own judgment calls based on how active they want to be in the organization. My folks are of the ilk that we’re all doing the best we can, and that you take care of people regardless of whether you agree with their decisions or not. Which is a challenging position for me, because it doesn’t reflect inculturation, it doesn’t reflect imperial motivations, it’s about individuals and individual behavior and doesn’t reflect the harm that’s historically been inflicted by groups, specifically religious organizations. And the weight those religious organizations have in politics and in law, and the way that those politics and laws have a direct impact on human lives. But that all said: my mom in the film is basically my mom in real life. She can be so on point and deep in her brain and then five minutes later, say something bonkers. That’s my whole life with her.
MUTHA: Your sister also comes out of left field at one point and directly blames you for her addiction issues. Seeing her as an adult point to the period when you were both kids in that way was shocking to me (and got me thinking about how sibling relationships shape identity, particularly as I have two kids now, with an age gap). How did you understand that moment in the film—you kept it in editing, along with some other tense moments—what did it mean to you, now and then?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: There’s some things in this film that are just [makes an exploding noise]. What you’re experiencing when you see that is basically what I experienced when I heard it. It basically confirmed everything I’ve thought for the last 10 years of my life. She had her first OD at 18. I had already been out of the house for five years. I’ve been feeling bad about myself for this shit for a long time. As her life got worse and worse, I felt that I had a chance to have shifted that direction at a certain time that now I don’t have any account with, but I’ve felt pretty bad about it. Then five minutes later, she says “I don’t really feel that way.” I think there’s a part of her that knows it’s ridiculous, and a part of her that wishes I was there for her, even if that part doesn’t actually think it’s my fault that she made the decisions she made.
I think she does wish that we’d had a different relationship. And so do I.
MUTHA: My memory of that moment though is not that she said you left, but that she’s speaking of your behaviors as a child—that you were a difficult sibling.
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: But I left before I’d had a chance to get over that age-appropriate hump. We were never in high school at the same time, and I left home for a year when I was 16. I wasn’t there during the moments I could have been there; and before that I was shitty in a classically hateful sibling way.
MUTHA: I hear your guilt about leaving; but the kind of sibling rivalry or bullying she was talking about… [my maternal instincts kicking in here audibly on the tape] maybe you can accept it’s not something to feel guilty about—because you were a child. As a viewer, the way she expressed it, it felt like a certain behavior for someone explaining away addiction issues.
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: I have to tell you this really funny thing that happened…. My parents came to see the film with me in Detroit, and it was the first time they’d seen it on the big screen. They didn’t want to be outed as my parents, they didn’t want to come to the Q&A, so I didn’t do an intro. No one knows that they’re there. Then that line happens and both my parents burst out laughing. They lost their shit. Everyone in the theater audience was like, Who are these fucking freaky assholes? It’s an intense moment, but to them, it’s over-the-top, classic my sister being a goofball. It felt warmly understanding of all the dynamics in a way that no one else in that theater could ever understand. It’s my sister’s personality. She’s giving a bit of truth, but mostly she’s fucking with you. She knows when truth hurts, so she’s like “I’m gonna poke it.”
MUTHA: It scares the hell out of me. My kids are still pre-adolescent, so I don’t know what the hell’s coming up.
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: Nothing you can do about it. Just hang out and be there to talk to.
MUTHA: So: the film centers on the loss of a child. In that loss, there is blaming and shifting versions of the truth. You alluded to unreliable narrators in the film; how do you feel you’re navigating those truths? Is there a viewpoint? Is there a “truth” to be found here for a viewer?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: There’s not really a truth. The truth is that everyone is terrible and wonderful at the same time, in the same way that everyone is responsible and not responsible at the same time. We tend to see representations of clear ethics, clear rights and wrongs. This gray area is much more real. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and I was committed to integrating all these different story threads and ideas and themes because no person’s experience is quantifiable or formulated.
Also, what is objective truth? Part of the reason I would never call myself a documentary filmmaker is because documentaries are oftentimes about revealing a truth, getting objective information. Though documentaries have become so expansive in the last 15 years, this may be an antiquated argument. But no one person is qualified to offer an objective truth that intersects multiple subjective experiences. The film is driven from my POV because it’s the only one I can speak from ethically. But even then, I’m constantly disrupting my own truth.
We are literally constructing our truths over and over again, every day that we live, just as we are constructing other aspects of self daily. Not to say that truth is a practice, but it is what it is when we enact it, in good faith of ourselves.
MUTHA: The movie’s about loss and grief, which evolve. It’s explicitly not a true crime piece, which is well represented in its marketing, but so many works that look at the questions around the death of a child would go in that direction. While the film takes a choice not to pursue that, the course of the actions taken by people in the film still leave the viewer with questions about Kalla’s death.
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: Kalla’s death is the lens through which all of these other questions can unfold. That set-up is intentional to position us there as a starting point. I don’t think I could make a film about my family that was also a film about their spirituality, without it being connected to Kalla. So much of their sense of faith is based around her, and their recommitment to Mormonism is rooted in her passing.
MUTHA: About reunifying with her—that they’ll meet her again, is that accurate?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: Yeah. None of those themes could exist separately. And I would never be interested in making work about my relationship with my family around gender itself, because that is not very interesting to me at this point in my life. It’s contingent on all of the ideas that I find most compelling, which are ideology, phenomenology, ontology, time travel, archival, queer intimacy—so much of care can be described as queer intimacy, if people are willing to look beyond the lens of the nuclear family.
Broadly: it’s about human experience.
MUTHA: How does the voice of a child act as a narrator; is the voice there to pull the viewer back into a larger conversation about ideas?
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: Because the film was so dense, it had to be intensely delineated voice-wise. Big picture stuff happens in subtext: subtext on screen, subtext in the unsaid, subtext in moments between glances. But indirect text and how the child narrator speaks creates a container that lasts for reflection of whatever subtexts were experienced or will be experienced in the future. The voice is omniscient. Everything is textured with ideological reference points, be they biblical or otherwise. There much overlap in the ways that philosophy and spiritual studies think about time, and the notion of spiritual time, or nonlinear time. Such as the idea that time moves very differently in other worlds. The voice moves from sounding very distant to, in the end, when the voices are in conversation, there’s a closeness. My idea with the child’s voice was to provide a base, an omniscience that existed in its own realm. It asks a lot of a viewer, to have a character that you have no reason to know what they’re for…and in other ways it doesn’t, it just depends on what viewers are used to seeing in film and what they think is possible in film.
MUTHA: For me, it created a breathing space, and aurally it’s very soothing. You can take it as a sound bath to process.
ANGELO MADSEN MINAX: The archival, landscape, and portrait shots also function that way, as some respite, because the film is pretty relentless.