North by Current is a documentary about family reconciliation and premiered very successfully at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
After the inconclusive death of his young niece Kalla, filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax returns to his rural Michigan hometown during the bleak winter of 2015. He was originally preparing to make a film about a broken criminal justice system which has resulted in the incorrect arrest of his brother-in-law for the death of Kalla. His family has understandably been traumatized by the death, and they agree to participate in the documentary as a distraction from their grief, and also to counter the injustice. Instead, once filming has started, he pivots to excavate the depths of his family’s generational addiction, Christian Mormon fervor, and trans embodiment – with the aim of his family understanding each other better.
Beautifully assembled images, decades of home movies, and ethereal narration form an idiosyncratic and poetic undertow that guides a viewer through lifetimes and relationships. Like the unrelenting Michigan seasons, the meaning of family shifts, as Minax, his sister Jesse, and his parents strive tirelessly to accept each other. Poised to incite more internal searching than provide clear statements or easy answers, NORTH BY CURRENT dives head-first into the challenges of creating identity, the agony of growing up, and the ever-fickle nuances of family. Complicated layers of family trauma are slowly revealed and we are really drawn into the documentary.
Although at times seemingly powerless to break the cycles of despair, Minax, a trans man, does eventually make progress. Shot over five years from 2015 to 2020, the family slowly begins to heal together with Minax’s mother saying “We all have to adapt” and questioning the church on some of its views. She also apologizes for previously likening Minax’s transition to the death of Kalla. She had said she was grieving the death of two little girls. Jesse eventually admits that her husband had physically abused her and was supposed to be looking after Kalla the night she died. Minax himself admits that he had been pretty abusive to his sister when they were growing up, maybe causing her addiction issues.
Minax is a somewhat experimental filmmaker. He brings together familial topics of grief, depression, drug abuse, motherhood, domestic violence and transgender masculinity in a landscape of beautiful cinematography, perfectly complemented by the very talented Julien Baker’s grungy rock n roll soundtrack. Minax’s film, a visual evocative essay, combines interview with narration using both his own voice and the voice of a child (maybe himself as a young girl, Jesse or Kalla) to reflect and wax poetically. Minax gives us a good tip about coping with family issues. ‘I learned a secret – when you speak the pain’s name, it dissipates. The greater the pain, the more times you need to speak it.’ This is a very personal piece of work, and although it covers some tough subjects and character traits, it does seem that there are some very good things about this family too. We usually get spoon-fed information in a documentary – here we have to work out the family for ourselves – and there is no obvious conclusion – just as there usually isn’t for our own families’ complexities.
One of the many appealing aspects of this documentary is that the trans story is refreshingly embedded in the content rather than forming the content. Very modern film-making. Minax has really shown up for his family in producing this story. He rightly points out that most humans spend a great deal of their lives trying to put distance between themselves and where they came from. He gives us an alternative to this. Highly recommended.
North by Current to have national broadcast and streaming debut on PBS television series POV & PBS.org on Monday, Nov. 1
Review: Ris Fatah
Queerguru’s newest contributor (when he can be bothered) is a successful fashion/luxury business consultant who divides and wastes his time between London and Ibiza. He is a lover of all things queer, feminist, and human rights in general. @ris.fatah
Labels: 2021, ANGELO MADSEN MINAX, documentary, trans filmmaker