Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Angelo Madsen Minax is an award-winning artist and independent filmmaker whose work explores the varying complexities of identity and relationship. His 2021 film “North by Current” weaves together concepts of loss, grief, family, trans identity, and life in rural Michigan while combining aspects of different film genres. His unique approach to visual and narrative storytelling offers not only an interesting contrast to mainstream films about LGBTQ+ people, but to cinematic conventions as well. 

I was introduced to “North by Current” around the time I started with the Deesmealz. I knew I wanted to highlight rural LGBTQ+ voices as part of my work. So when it was brought to my attention, I was excited to speak to Angelo about his experiences in making it. Enjoy our conversation about capturing life’s nuances and the importance of leaving questions unanswered.

YouTube video
Trailer for “North by Current,” created by filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax.

Janie Ekere, Deesmealz: What was the process of putting this film together like? Was there anything that surprised or challenged you?

Angelo Madsen Minax: Oh man, almost everything was a surprise or challenge! Making any kind of film is a huge undertaking, but especially one that takes 6+ years to make. There are so many moving pieces it’s near impossible to stay married to any idea or approach all the way through, so I try to embrace ultimate flexibility and allow the film to become whatever it wants to become based on what footage is there. It’s a constant process of reassessing the shape of the film based on what the footage allows. You can’t plan around anything before you see what unfolds. I guess I was a bit surprised at how on-board everyone was for my weird thought experiment of a project. My family was really all-in from the beginning. I didn’t have to do any coaxing! The very process of making a film about your family is kind of the ultimate challenge, because it’s revisiting everything — a whole personal history, which puts you in a position of constant self-reflection.

DY: The film originally debuted in 2021, around the beginning of the current wave of anti-trans legislation. How did audiences initially receive the film? Has that reception changed over time?

AMM: I don’t know that the anti-trans legislation had much to do with how audiences perceived “North By Current.” I think film festivals are still pretty exclusive spaces dominated by liberal and left agendas, which in some ways makes it like preaching to the choir. The tensions of that come not between left and right but between left and left-er. In general the film was incredibly well received. Its intersectional range of subjects makes it timely for programmers, while its unconventional approach to storytelling makes it more attractive to non-mainstream outlets, primarily film festivals. It’s an indie movie, both in look and feel, but also in production. It doesn’t have the resources behind it to be more accessible in spaces where folks of any persuasion might encounter it. The people interested in watching indie film tend to also be interested in supporting the arts at large, and consequently are more liberal. The PBS co-production deal was a dream for me, because it was the only way I could ensure that the film reached rural audiences. I wanted people to be able to enter the film from all kinds of different angles, not just a trans angle. I also didn’t want the notion of blame to play a role in my film. We, humans, project so much blame into the world in an attempt to relieve our suffering. I think the lack of blame, and instead prioritizing connection and compassion helps audiences from any walk of life connect to the profound humanness of the people in the film. I think that perception hasn’t changed. 

DY: In your opinion, what do mainstream audiences misunderstand about being LGBTQ in rural parts of the country? How did you try to bring those nuances to light in the film?

AMM: I think the biggest misunderstandings about LGBT livelihood in general (or any kind of marginalization for that matter) have to do with reducing a human being to their identity categories. Queer and trans people are intersectional beings just like everyone else. We’re messy, and have all kinds of issues going on at the same time – dealing with jobs, and family, and friendships, having hobbies and interests, buying groceries, getting that pesky mole check out, etc. It’s not just dance parties and hook-up apps and parades and agendas – it’s all the boring stuff, too. To have struggles with mental health or addiction, or be a survivor of domestic violence, these are not specifically queer issues, they are human issues.

Filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax behind the camera. (Photo provided)

The film juggles these issues without trying to narrow the experience down to something simple. In its very form, which is full of ruptures and truncated sections and multiple voices, the film mimics the complexity of everyday life. Mainstream narrative structure functions on its ability to reduce a human (with an infinite multitude of traits, a complex personality and history) into a character (of three or so traits and zero history). This reduction is not real. It’s a tool used to entertain. The approach to the visual form of my film attempts to allow nuance to become even more important than defining a clearly carved-out story. In some way the film gets to function like vignettes or snippets over time. Eventually you can start to put together a picture, but it will never be a perfectly clear picture. I think real nuance requires that many questions go unanswered.

DY: What changes did you observe within your hometown over the course of filming this documentary? In what ways do they mirror or contrast changes within your family?

AMM: The film is full of visual metaphors. Many of them reinforce the idea that the old makes room for new – yet without a judgment value. We don’t really know if it’s better to make room for the new or not. It’s a confusing question, what of the old do we want to hold on to? There are always many things of value that get left behind when we make room for the new. For example, the old sawmill my family works at is not as significant in the region for industry as it was 50 years ago, and now the town is building a new power plant. The new industry will attract hundreds of jobs for people that need those jobs. And slowly the need for sawmills will become less and less. In the stories of the film my family members and I get closer and closer over time, simply as time moves forward. I like to think about the concept of staying – like just sitting somewhere long enough to bear witness to the various transformations happening around you: internal, but also the landscape and the people. In some ways while the town struggles economically, the family flourishes, but not without myriad complications.

A still from Madsen Minax's film “North by Current.” (Photo provided)

DY: You mention in the film that you originally set out to make it about corruption in the justice system after your late niece Kalla’s parents were falsely charged in her death. What motivated you to change the film's focus from that to what it is now?

AMM: I knew I wanted to make a film that had multiple juggling parts, so that different ideas were forced to be in conversation with each other – life and death, incarceration and freedom, growth and change, ruralness, masculinity, whiteness, and so forth – with the nexus of all of this being the family unit. In some ways I made exactly the film I set out to make. There are voiceovers in the film that are used more to guide a viewer through, in the present moment of watching the film, but are not all accurate to how the process of making it actually unfolded. For example, I have a line of voiceover in the film that states that I had wanted to make a film about the criminal justice system, when in actuality, that line is written and placed exactly where it is in the film to move us from one topic to another – to let a viewer know that ‘okay, we’re going to leave this true-crime genre behind and move somewhere else now.’

DY: You’ve stated that you intentionally withheld certain information from viewers in what you referred to as an “approach of refusal.” Why was it important for you to use this approach in making the documentary?

AMM: As I said earlier on, the footage tells you what to do. My sister and her husband had been through so much already. As I started working on the film, I realized it was not going to be productive for them to revisit this trauma ad nauseam. So I adapted. I made some things more abstract, brought in more of my own story, made my parents’ role central to the film’s structure, etc. This film is not for everyone, because it chooses to withhold a lot of information – and audiences hate that (ha). They feel entitled to specific kinds of information because it unfolds in a cinematic form, and mainstream cinema generally leaves little to question. That’s why it is so consumable, because a viewer doesn’t have to think for themselves much. The choice to withhold information became one of a resistance practice. For example, it is clear that I am a trans person, but I don’t provide any details of what that means or any information about my body. Because it’s not important to the film. Viewers sometimes want more of that information, but I feel like if you want to know about trans people you don’t need to watch a film that weaves all these different ideas together, you can just Google specifically what you want to know. A viewer might also find themselves wanting more backstory to certain things that they’re not going to get. There is a lot of play with form in that way. In “North By Current,” a viewer isn’t entitled to any details beyond what they are given. This, and the aspect of constant divergence or drifting from one idea to another – makes for a challenging watch.

DY: Where can our readers watch the film? And where can they learn more about your work?

AMM: The film is available on Apple TV, and Google Play in the USA. It’s also available for institutions via Grasshopper Film, and I do my best to keep my website up to date with screenings and events.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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