Traveling back to his rural Michigan hometown with a camera and intentions of exploring how he became who he became, North by Current director Angelo Madsen Minax “really wasn’t sure how it was going to unfold.” Minax, who is trans, had embarked on this personal journey during the aftermath of a family tragedy: the death of his toddler niece.
Determined by an autopsy to be a homicide, the child’s death cast a damning pall over Minax’s sister and the sister’s partner, the man accused of — and ultimately cleared of — killing the girl. The couple, along with Minax’s parents and Minax himself, bare their grief and resilience, and many hard truths, in the filmmaker’s award-winning documentary North By Current, making its national broadcast debut Monday, Nov. 1 at 10 p.m. on PBS POV.
A poetic, boldly visual portrait, the film blends family history with true crime storytelling, framed by Minax’s individual queer experience. “I knew I wanted to be in it in some way, because it’s hard to make work that’s super intimate, [and] portrays intimate access to persons or structures, without also positioning yourself in some context, like how I would have this access or how I would be privy to this situation. So I knew that I would have to position myself in the work. I didn’t know that I would necessarily be a subjective character in the work. But after the first year of shooting, that became pretty clear. Also, just because it took pressure off of everybody else.”
Tension is a powerful element in the film, which layers on-camera interviews with home movies, candid family footage, evocative score and narration, and even some scripted scenes. “I thought the film was either going to be super experimental or very conventional,” Minax explains. “It ended up being a merger of the two, which I feel good about because the conventionality of it lets it access the wider community and wider audience. And then the formal experimentation stays true to the things I’m interested in visually.”
Shot over five years, the movie also depicts a narrative of reconciliation between Minax and his mother, who, though supportive, evolves in her acceptance of his trans identity. Trust between the filmmaker and all of his onscreen subjects clearly develops over time. Although, as Minax notes, “They were pretty on board from the beginning. I think part of that is, I just did it really, really slow. So I shot landscapes, birthday parties. I basically shot home-movie style for about six months before I shot an interview even. So that was just me familiarizing.”
Minax also had to familiarize himself with holding the camera on some of those intensely intimate moments. “I have a tendency to put the camera down before I should,” he says, “because I’m trying to be hyper-respectful. So I had to learn to hold the camera longer, while still maintaining a semblance of intuition, and reading the room. Being like, ‘Okay, is someone uncomfortable right now? And to what degree are they uncomfortable? And to what degree does that mean that I should either withdraw or continue what I’m doing?’ I think that they had fun with a lot of things we did, which was kind of the point.”
Ultimately, North By Current portrays the moving process of a trans artist going home in search of new understanding, and actually finding it. “This idea of severing yourself from your family of origin as a way to become who you need to become, I think that is bullshit,” Minax insists. “I think that it’s much more rewarding, and much more challenging to sit with that discomfort, and understand that identity is a process of integration. It’s not like you just swap one for the other. You have to integrate your worlds. And that can be very painful and trying.
“I think there’s a fair amount of queer or trans folk who look at my film, and especially younger trans folk, who are like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe your mom said that to you. That’s so terrible,’ and it’s like, yeah, it hurts. But also, I’m not setting her up in this film to be judged for the things that she’s said to me. And I’m not interested in judging her or in judging anyone who has responded to a situation with not their best self, because we all have. I think just basic human compassion is the takeaway.”
North By Current premieres Monday, Nov. 1 at 10 p.m. on PBS, and will be available on the PBS app and on streaming at www.PBS.org.
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