Film In Conversation
Fox Maxy with Matt Turner
The San Diego-based filmmaker sits down with Matt Turner to discuss process, motivation, and the place of individual expression within collectivity.
Fox Maxy (Kumeyaay/Diegueño and Payómkawichum/Luiseño) is a San Diego-based filmmaker and artist whose most recent work, Maat Means Land (2020), was one of the three recipients of this year’s Tiger Short Award at the International Festival Rotterdam. An energetic, inventive 30-minute-long film marked by an abstract diaristic style, Maat Means Land ruminates on—amongst other things—the idea of Indigeneity, combining a variety of found and filmed sources and references to ask questions concerning what it might mean to “come from somewhere.”
Using the artist’s own life and immediate surroundings as the basis for an exploration of ideas around place and belonging, the film flitters between computer desktop screen recordings, scenes staged within video game worlds, and an array of repurposed web materials and original footage shot on an iPhone. The editing is rapid and rhythmic, associatively cut-and-spliced to an emotionally resonant, animating soundtrack featuring splintered sound design and snippets of voice and music. The result is both assaultive and intoxicating, a barrage of sonic and visual variations that somehow still feels cohesive due to the geographic and sociocultural specificity of the materials and memories that the film acts as a carriage and container for.
Maat Means Land, which follows a number of other short films such as San Diego (2020) and Petroleum Jelly (2020) produced in the period since the COVID-19 pandemic began, precedes a feature film that the artist is currently working on which will explore “growth and being able to change your perspective.” In this conversation, we discuss Maxy’s processes and motivations, finding out what informs the thinking that goes into making films that are both personal and political and that combine individual expression with a sense of community and collectivity.
Matt Turner (Rail): When and why did you start making films? What does this format offer you as an artist?
Fox Maxy: I started filming things on my phone over a decade ago. I like to capture stuff; it’s really healing for me. For a long time, I was working in New York City in fashion, which involved a lot of preparation of presentations and mood boards, so creating visuals was already in my system, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. Filming became an everyday routine for me, something that I had to do even though it pissed off everyone around me. Nobody wants a camera in their face at all times.
I realized I was creating such a large archive of imagery but had nowhere to put it, no reason for doing it other than the love of filming on my phone. From there, I had to build up my confidence to make something out of it that wasn’t just for Instagram. I felt that I needed to make a movie, so over quarantine, I did just that. Watching back what I had made, I realized that I didn’t need to make anything that you might see in theaters or on streaming platforms. I had my own visual style and my own way of editing, so now I focus really heavily on making up my own rules.
Rail: That really comes across I think, that disregard for conventional rules. With a decade-long archive, how do you decide what goes into a film and what shape each film should take?
Maxy: For me, it’s completely emotional. For example, if I miss somebody, I'll pull up footage of them, and start editing that footage, playing with it or layering it over other videos in order to build something from the connections that I start to see. I love to find stuff on the internet, too, so my process becomes like a spider’s web, bringing everything together and making links. When I edit, I make sure that these little points that mean something to me come across together.
Rail: Can you talk about your approach to sound design and music? You like to manipulate and warp voices, and use parts of songs and sounds. How do you find tracks and clips and decide how to use them?
Maxy: I have a lot of talented friends, and I'm always filming them perform. I catch them when they're doing something that I think is really creative or really striking, and I want to share that. I use a diary form to revisit a memory and extend it to as many people that want to see it. Music is very personal. It's a mood enhancer or changer, so when editing with music, it is about emotional honesty, being real about whatever I'm going through at any given time. I love all kinds of music, so I include what matches my mood.
Rail: There is an inherent rhythm and musicality in the sound and the imagery in the films too. How do you approach editing your films?
Maxy: That's pretty emotional too. With San Diego I was exploring a lot of different topics and different ideas, but it came naturally and additively, day by day. Things came up and fit into this natural timeline. I’ve been thinking about how our attention spans are changing, how I can’t pay attention to things for as long as I used to be able to; something else catches my eye and I'm ready to change the subject. So that really plays into how I edit too, paying attention to the pace of how we consume things now. I try not to think about an audience or a market for the films, but I guess the way I pace my films does come into it because I try to pay attention to what is easiest to digest.
Rail: Yeah, you bring lots of different things into collision with each other in your films. Your films have a diary-like form, but there is a sense of time and place that goes beyond the present-tense moments seen in your personal archive. How do you approach history in your work?
Maxy: I choose things based on whatever I am trying to get across. A lot of Maat Means Land is about land-based knowledge. I started looking into Native people who had been prominent, or who had their work on the internet. I don’t always have many people that I can talk to about some things, so the internet is a really good research tool for me. From one person I can find another, or a video that shows a specific event or a marking in history. I love history, and learning how things are progressing or regressing. I think that the truth can be hard to come across because a lot of history has been written by white people, rather than people who have a non-white way of looking at things. So when I want to figure out something about an area, whether it’s a body of water or a place, I try to learn through people who are native to that land. This can take a long time on the internet, but I love it. I would be doing this research even if I wasn't making a film.
Rail: In a Q&A you did for your films that I saw, you were talking about looking into the meaning of the word “Indigenous” and finding that it meant “to be from somewhere,” then thinking about how everybody is “from somewhere.” That wasn’t something I had heard before.
Maxy: I was shocked when I found that definition. When I was involved with Native land and water protecting, I would hear the word Indigenous all the time, but I try to use the word Native instead. I’m not telling anybody else to do that, but for me it makes more sense because it is more specific. Indigenous—at least when you use this definition—sounds so broad, like it could apply to everyone. I loved learning that and while it’s not a popular belief, what I’m trying to do in my films is bring these topics up in a way that will meet people on their level without having to explain anything or force anything onto anyone. My goal is to just introduce ideas like this, plant them as seeds and then see whether people want to do their own research and investigate things further.
Rail: How has your own journey of learning where you are from factored into the way that you decided to express this theme in Maat Means Land?
Maxy: It’s still ongoing. I‘m not done figuring it out, which I feel plays into my editing process, because not all of the pieces are there yet, and in my editing I am doing the research, figuring things out and filling things in. With these films I’ve been making, I want to put a message out that, for me, nothing is ever complete when it comes to the journey of figuring out where I come from. I work at it almost every day. I’m trying to figure out what it means to come from San Diego, and from Southern California. I'm also Mexican. I'm Black. I'm from Pakistan. I'm from Spain. I'm still figuring it all out and just trying to put the pieces together as best I can.
Rail: You are working on a feature now, I read? Is that being made using old archival material then, or new footage you are shooting with it in mind?
Maxy: It’s kind of like half and half. A lot of it is from this archive that I have built, but the most exciting part will be getting to film this summer. I'm going to be able to practice all these things that I haven't been able to do yet, because I film on my own, using either my phone or the screen record function on my computer. But this summer I'm going to be able to film some scenes that I script and direct and loosely put together. I have lots of friends who work as stylists for brands and have these crazy designer pieces. I would love to introduce all of these worlds that I'm a part of, and really show what I could do with a team and a crew and some financial support. Then, I can contrast this with these images that I made completely on my own, out of desperation and from a place of lacking. It will be cool to have both of those sides balanced in the film.
Rail: That’s really interesting, contrasting a place of lacking with a place of abundance.
Maxy: Yeah, it speaks to what the feature film will be about. It’s about growth and being able to change your perspective. The films I have made so far all have my thought processes in them; they come from a place when I used to not believe in myself or not be sure of what I wanted to do. Now that I am fully ready to do my own thing and really live my own life, I can show that progression. That's the point of the film: to inspire that knowledge spark in people.
Rail: I wanted to also ask you who inspires you as an artist. Where do you draw influence from?
Maxy: So many places. My films are always an expression of something: this land, this view, this time of day, this animal, or this food, or even colors, clothing, and music. I’m showing my appreciation for the things that I love, I’m thanking them for existing. My partner, CutStonePRO, is incredibly encouraging and inspiring. He’s always working on music every day and that’s the kind of energy that I love to be around. My dad too, he’s always hiking. He hikes every morning at sunrise, which is badass. I don't know anyone else with that much dedication and love for the land. All my friends, cousins, uncles, they’re all really inspiring people. And not all of them are artists, not all of them are like me. I'm a fucking freak, but I pull a lot of inspiration from our differences.
Rail: Yeah, you don't want to be surrounded by only artists. That's not a good life.
Maxy: No, that’s kind of hectic.
Rail: What experience do you hope people will have watching your films? What do you want to inspire in a viewer or have them feel when they watch your work?
Maxy: I love the idea of inspiring people to become filmmakers. I think anyone can make a film, it’s just moving images. It doesn't have to be perfect, or even pretty, and a camera can be a really healing tool. I worked for Native non-profits for a long time, and the whole structure there was around getting people to tell their own stories on film. Even though I hated the politics of that world, it was really a good project to be a part of and it taught me a lot. Ultimately, I would love to have my own company someday that does that sort of thing on my own terms, teaching people that filmmaking can be a healing experience and an opportunity to make art. This is not serious, and it is not reserved for people who went to school for it either. We can all make movies every day.
Rail: That's a really nice way of thinking about a first-person style of filmmaking, not as something brave and vulnerable but as something that is necessary and healing.
Maxy: Yeah. I don't care about how people receive my films because I'm confident in the truth of my voice. There are no facts, just feelings. That’s how I operate, because if I just speak my truth, what is the worst that could happen? All I can do is keep doing what I want to do at all times and keep expressing all that I need to express. That’s where the healing part comes in: being able to be honest even if what you are saying isn’t perfect or even if it doesn't even make you look good.
The responses I've been getting to my work are crazy. The most random people identify with my films and I couldn’t predict that but it doesn't matter. If you speak your truth, people are gonna hear it. It could be someone halfway across the world that's never even met me or been near anything I've experienced, but the films still really resonate with them. So let's just keep doing it.
Rail: Yeah, that’s a great way of thinking about things. It must be empowering to not overthink it.
Maxy: Yeah. Exactly. It's not serious.
Rail: It's just a film.
Maxy: It's just an art project. It's a finger painting. It's a portrait painted in noodles. That's all it is.