As seen in his poetic, mesmerizing autobiographical documentary “North by Current,” Angelo Madsen Minax’s life has a lot going on, the stuff of more than one dramatic miniseries. He is transgender; his parents are pious Mormons; his sister Jesse is married to an alcoholic and she copes with depression by having children and by attempting suicide. When Jesse’s daughter Kalla dies from what appears to be an accident, the authorities persist in investigating her family, suspecting homicide. And so Minax decides to take his camera back to his frigid hometown, a sparse, snowy logging community in northern Michigan, 12 years after he transitioned and left for New York. He intends to make a movie about his family’s unjust persecution by the law.
But when he returns, the dam holding back the past starts to break and the film becomes about something more. Separated into chapters by year, from 2016 to the present, each division marked by the date and a musical interlude reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” (1996), Minax follows the investigation and its outcome. It unfolds in the background, unseen and mentioned in elliptical snatches of discussions. But in the foreground other issues emerge in conversations and flurries of clips from home movies.
In one disturbing sequence, his parents talk about the loss not just of one little girl, but two – referring to Minax’s transitioning. Too shocked to respond at the time, Minax later runs outside, camera in hand, into a snowy night. Another epiphany occurs when Minax recreates a meeting the family held in a diner after the funeral, years earlier. Looking at the footage later, his mother notices for the first time that the 1964 song “Last Kiss,” with its lyrics “Well, where, oh, where can my baby be?/The Lord took her away from me” is serendipitously playing on the juke box. She is at first taken by the irony and then breaks down into tears. It’s one of the most subtle uses of reenactment since Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” (1988).
Minax balances an objective point of view with that of an outsider, a child’s blinkered perception of the dire events of a world only fitfully glimpsed. To underscore this conceit he intercuts his own eloquent voice-over narration with a commentary spoken in an anonymous little girl’s voice – perhaps that of the child Minax once was? She speaks with a bleak, otherworldly wisdom. “When you leave a place,” she says, “the place goes on living without you.” And apparently within you as well.
“North by Current” can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre’s Brattlite screening room as part of the DocYard series from Sept, 10-16. It screens live at the Brattle on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m., followed by an in-person Q&A with the filmmaker.
Restoration of things past
Reminiscent of recent documentaries by and about Indigenous artists, such as Sky Hopinka’s “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore” (2020), Núria Frigola Torrent’s “The Song of the Butterflies” follows the odyssey of Rember Yahuarcani, a painter living in Lima, Peru, who belongs to the nearly extinct White Heron clan of the Uitoto Nation. Though far away, he remains spiritually connected with them through the near mystical bond he shares with his late grandmother, who has chosen him to be her “voice.”
Yahuarcani’s canvases have an uncanny, dreamlike quality, like a fusion between Hieronymus Bosch and Paul Klee, but he is tiring of his usual imagery and resists depicting the most tragic aspect of his people’s history – the enslavement, torture, rape, and murder of thousands by European rubber barons at the beginning of the last century. To find new inspiration he returns to his birthplace, the Amazonian community of Pebas.
There he visits his mother, a sculptor, and his father, a painter, like him. His mother makes animal masks representing departed souls; and his father, unlike Yahuarcani, draws on horrific scenes of the Uitoto genocide and renders them with a graphic, mythic intensity. He advises Yahuarcani to visit a branch of the family that he has never met before and who still live in a remote community that is the birthplace of his grandmother. He does so, hoping to receive inspiration on what direction his art should take.
Torrent’s film shimmers with radiant natural beauty, including the expected, gemlike close-ups of butterflies, and shares intimate glimpses of the Uitoto communities and their cultural practices as well as images from archival photographs and contemporary paintings of the tragic past. Her film is an ethnographic document, an indictment of an overlooked crime against humanity, and a record of the universal urge to reconnect with one’s origins and destiny.
“The Song of the Butterflies” will stream at www.pbs.org/video/the-song-of-the-butterflies-gbpwfw until Oct. 29. Go to pbs.org.
Compared to the travails over the past several years of those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States, the government response to demonstrations against a road planned to a revered lava field near Reykjavik seems almost quaint. Sara Dosa’s “The Seer and the Unseen” (2019) follows this Icelandic movement from the point of view of Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, known as Ragga, a charming grandmother, environmental activist, and the seer of the title.
Since childhood, Ragga claims, she has been able to communicate with the elves, dwarfs, sprites, and trolls of local folklore who are denizens of the grounds that the roadbuilders will be digging up. At the very least she demands that the builders spare a giant rock which she calls an “Elf Church,” which lies in their path. Let us just say that elf power is not to be underestimated.
“The Seer and the Unseen” can be streamed on AppleTV and Altavod. Go to www.theseerandtheunseen.com/screenings.
Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough.com.