Spiraling Melancholia

An interview with Fox Maxy, whose films explore identity in frenetic first-person shots 

Documentary is “the creative treatment of actuality.”

~ John Grierson

A film – as a whole and in its component sequences – is open to a myriad of interpretations. Years-old footage affords many subjective impressions when it is used in montage, documentary, or fictional narrative. Filmmaker Fox Maxy (Mesa Grande Band of Mission Indians and Payómkawichum) wonders how to fictionalize documentary, first-person shots. Unlike the dominant discourse in film, which obscures cinematographic modes, she uses immediately available techniques to share her experiences. In this way, she avoids being pedagogical in depicting her indigeneity. Her illustrious films, including  Maat (2021) (streaming on MUBI), San Diego (2020), and F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now (2022), are frenetic, hypersonic video diaries in which she contemplates mental health, her familial and communal relationship dynamics, and in which she refuses to define herself explicitly to the viewer. She achieves this with multilayered sound bridges that unexpectedly teleport the audience into new areas of her life, by distorting her voice to convey her many passions, with feverish pacing, and with a soundtrack that spirals like a melancholic roller coaster.

Fox Maxy, “F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now,” 2022 (film still). Courtesy of Fox Maxy.

These signature elements are all present in her feature debut Gush (2023). In the film, Maxy explores her and others’ relationships with flesh before the film transforms into a declaration of self-determination and the joy of enduring humanity. While the film has no overarching narrative, the primary subplots are Maxy’s Halloween Modern Monday performance at MoMA, two young cousins debating the value of sexually violent men in their community, as well as a multilayered interview of Maxy in which she discusses mental health. In the interview, she comments on what it means to release art publicly, where she has to live with the information dispersed in the public realm. 

Fox Maxy, “San Diego,” 2020 (film still). Courtesy of Fox Maxy.

At first glance, Gush is a jittery, fast-paced personal film resembling Maxy’s shorts. But as she remarked on MUBI Notebook, it is better understood as an initial foray “into the narrative world.” “I don’t see this film as a documentary because we’re all playing characters. We’re all joking or exaggerating, being extra dramatic. It’s a powerful thing, to point a camera at someone.” Maxy emphasizes the communal, collaborative nature of filmmaking and prioritizes care for her participants, shaping her planning around the idea that we should “treat others how we want to be treated.”

Fox Maxy, “Maat,” 2021 (film still). Courtesy of Fox Maxy.

In my Brooklyn Rail review of Gush and Maat, I described Maxy as “a pioneer of freeform filmmaking” for her “mission to promote accessible production with iPhones and camcorders.” Her DIY, lo-fi aesthetics transcend non-fiction and fiction. The scenes she captures are inextricably linked to the powerful utilitarian and democratic values embedded in the moving image. Her disquisition of language is embedded in her films’ captions. Modified spellings of everyday terms such as “u,” “kno,” and “rly” in the works add new meaning toward inclusion and questioning one’s knowledge. Though the language play might reflect her preferential use of digital devices, it is also a subtle wink at accessibility because d/Deaf/Hard of Hearing audiences often use vocabulary that deviates from that of people who have vital hearing or are mentally/physically abled. Rapid-fire scene transitions also emphasize the limits of singular viewers to fully understand film. Maxy’s films unleash the need to heal despite overwhelming socio-political discord, and they insist that there is room for joy within these circumstances.

Fox Maxy, “Gush,” 2023 (film still). Courtesy of Fox Maxy.
Fox Maxy, “Maat,” 2021 (film still). Courtesy of Fox Maxy.

We caught up for a remote chat six months after Gush played at New Directors/New Films in New York. Maxy described her move from fashion to filmmaking, her positive and negative relationships in industry, and the prevalence of challenging Eurocentric norms in every aspect of the work – from the production to exhibition – while working to prioritize accessibility and inclusion. She also reflected on her non-traditional trajectory from  commercials and photoshoots into film direction, and how her experiences equipped her to manage the logistics of film and gave her insights to draw from relating to racism, sexism, and other systemic barriers in the film world. 

INTERVIEWER

Before you made films, you had a career in the fashion industry. What led you to start working in fashion?

MAXY

I grew up loving that world and wanting to know more about it. There was no social media back then. The internet wasn’t like it is now. Magazines were things that I could physically hold. I felt like I could take part in it in that way. I covered my wall with magazines and pictures. I was always inspired by each shoot being a different world or theme, by the fantasy of it. I think that’s why I wanted to get into it so badly.

INTERVIEWER 

What was it like getting used to the fashion industry during this change? How did it affect you as a filmmaker, because you’re such a digital filmmaker yourself?

MAXY

I felt like I had to make the films that I’ve made to get this out of me. The fact that our phones do have cameras, and there are free programs to edit your stuff on your phone, it’s so accessible. It has become a therapy thing for me. It could be done by filming and editing every day. 

I eventually practiced and learned how to use more professional programs like [Adobe] Premiere. But I feel like the digital aspect of having a machine in your hand that’s so easy to use is fun. I don’t like the aspect of any industry being seen as serious because times and things are changing. 

The way that we consume media is changing. Scrolling on TikTok is not a serious thing. You’re consuming information at a rapid speed, and people are getting exposed to different things at a rapid speed. I like the way things are changing and it’s hard to predict where things are gonna go, in terms of movies, theaters and film festivals, but I do hope all of that shit changes because it’s too old school. It’s old school in a bad way. I like old school. It has a place for social structure. But in terms of film, it’s like, no, that’s changed already. You guys are behind.

INTERVIEWER

Did you work on any of the photo shoots or any videos that you might have got some training from like in fashion videography?

MAXY

I was a production person first. I started building sets for fashion shows first and it was not glamorous. I [was on] my hands and knees piecing things together for 10, 12 hours a day. [It was] hard work for years and being treated like Shit. 

From that I got exposed to the different systems of how a fashion show/event or a photoshoot comes together. I was looking at everybody else doing their jobs, and I’m like, “Well, I gotta climb this ladder.” It took a while and almost 10 years to become a production manager, but I did produce a lot of editorial shoots and a lot of branding content like advertising and campaigns. I had a hand in designing stuff, coming up with the concepts for certain things, working with designers and talent. I got exposed to a very corporate level of working. I even did web design for Vogue, worked for Harper’s Bazaar for a while and for a French fashion editor for a while. It was a dream come true and that’s where my ambition comes from. 

I’ve seen what budgets can do for creativity. I’m always chasing the budget because I’ve been on the end of the producer. I’ve been managing those budgets. I did a Dior fashion show when I was 23 years old. So I know how to handle a lot of money and that’s what I’m aiming to do with my film work. I keep trying to convince these people [by saying] “look what I did with no budget. Look what I did by myself, now, what if I had a budget? What if I had a crew?” I can handle that and bring in the audience even more. That’s the next chapter for me. But I wouldn’t have that ambition if I didn’t have the fashion world experience. I had to go through a lot of bullshit with the fashion world. It’s probably very different now but some of that ugliness is still there. I noticed some of it in the film world too. I’m trying to navigate all of that with my new experiences too.

INTERVIEWER

Systems and hierarchies are in every field. What led you to make the move from fashion to filmmaking, and video art?

MAXY

Through being on set, I would always see the camera guy. I’d be like oh my god, I’m so jealous of his job. It looks so fun, creatively fulfilling to be a director, a camera operator or somebody on that end of the job. I wasn’t able to make the jump in fashion. I kept trying and trying and trying for years. I built my portfolio and tried showing them, look, I can use Premiere. That’s why I started practicing on Premiere – to show, “look, I could do this shit.” It’s a male dominated industry. There was not a lot of faith that I could do a job like that or even hold a camera or this or that. I just kept pushing, and it came down to like, “Okay, I’m making these films because I have to and nobody else is allowing me to.” The switch was out of pure desire. I had to say those things to express myself, but it’s also like I wanted to make movies ever since I was little, but sometimes those desires in your life feel so big and so ridiculous that it’s hard to say. I feel like I didn’t even allow myself to say like, “Oh, I want to make movies,” until recently because it seemed like such a big goal.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your shorts are melancholic, and they all have different purposes when you shoot them. When you make them, what’s on your mind when you start filming? Do you just film it to keep in your internal catalog, or know that it will be used in the scene in its final cut?

MAXY

When I was filming in the past, I didn’t know where it would end up most of the time. But I really wanted to practice the composition or lighting, even if it’s on the go and it’s on the street. It’s like, “Okay, I’m gonna follow this stranger and practice tracking.” It’s teaching yourself or I saw this type of shot in a movie and it stuck with me. Here’s something out in the world that reminds me of that. So let me try to capture it myself. Then COVID hit. There’s so much to that. But then it turned into “Okay, let me go through my archive.” And then it turned into like, “Okay, well, I have a lot here. I’m gonna piece it all together. There’s so much here I can make a movie.” A movie is just a moving image. And anyone can make one.

INTERVIEWER

Particularly with Gush, there’s a lot of footage that you shot years ago that is actually reality. But then, in some portions of the film, through voiceover and music, you fictionalize it. Can you talk about how you fictionalize some of those scenes?

MAXY 

I think, yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I think everyone’s always performing no matter what in front of the camera. Maybe there wasn’t an intentional character behind that person saying or doing something, but it is a performance regardless. And there’s something to that, that’s really fun to explore. I like the idea of going over memories, but having some kind of way to honor the moment and show love to something. I think that tied in with the aspect of putting a camera up to anyone. You could create a story through that. It doesn’t always have to be far off from the truth, but there can be fantasy to it. We see that in ads and regular content that we consume anyway.

INTERVIEWER

The MoMA Halloween performance [in Gush] between you, Ruth Fish, Sergio Mejia,  and the composer Laura Ortman is a good blend of that because you have a script, but then you are actually going on stage and then it’s fun to see MoMA curator Sophie Cavoulacos in the background. It’s a lil merge of all that, to release these inner demons.

MAXY

I loved reading what you wrote about your experience of being part of the audience, that was really cool for me to see. Me, Ruth, Sergio, and Laura perform all the time. We used to perform, if we were DJing, doing some kind of art performance. It’s not serious, you know, but you can really touch on things that are dark. You can go back and forth between these dark places that are totally tucked away for so many reasons. For me, there are ways to live life and do everything in a non-serious way. But it could still be deep, if that makes sense. I liked that aspect of performing, being in front of or behind a camera, editing, or just making any kind of art. You can touch on things that are so deeply powerful. 

It’s funny that you brought up Sophie, because working with institutions doesn’t have to be painful, either. Sophie and MoMA is a great example of that. Normally out of a film screening, they want everybody to sit down, watch the movie, stay quiet, be real serious. Afterwards, they want you to sit more, and be real serious again, and listen to the filmmaker talk real serious. Everything to me is fake. I don’t care about that experience. But it was a dream, because Sophie really listened to me and was like, “okay, it doesn’t have to be that way. This is the world that we can create from it. This is what we can do. We totally understand and hear you. Let’s fuckin do it.” Oh my god, I wish I could work like that with everybody because not everybody gets it. Not everybody puts full faith into artists and filmmakers. It’s kinda like, we want to see what you got,but you gotta be on our terms, which doesn’t make sense to me because if you’re hiring a storyteller, then they got to tell the story their way.

INTERVIEWER

Accessibility is a theme in your work. Not just in the production values, but also in the captions too when you play with different numbers and letters. What inspired you to change the meaning of accessibility not like a physical obtaining of an object or a destination, but also the emotional experience as well?

MAXY

I’ve spent years studying our language here in Southern California. The importance is less on the spelling and on the written aspect of our language. So that’s a totally different way of learning, right? You go to American school, and at least in my time, the stress is on reading and comprehension and proper this, proper that – but proper to them. The information they were feeding us was just one-sided. One view of history. One view of English. One view of what’s right, what’s wrong and the ability to fill in bubbles on a scantron. That’s supposed to determine how you learn.

Now that I’m an adult, I’m learning so much about where I come from. I’m getting better at our language. It’s like, okay, that’s not how I learned best. That’s not how I absorb information. I’m very much about visuals, feelings, sounds, the experience of something I have, that’s how I learn. Because I make the films for me, that’s how I want to say things. That’s how I want to express things. There’s also a fun aspect to being like, “Fuck English”. There has to be fun. I told somebody: “I’m always looking for something sweet in life. I’m always looking for something that’s good. The situation could be really dark, but I’m always looking for something that could be fun. I love adding those little symbols, a little smiley face, squiggle or spiral.”

INTERVIEWER

In your films, you change the tone of your voice. Does that apply to the many moods towards moments we are about to see?

MAXY

Editing audio is something that I enjoy doing so much.  It helps take a break from the stress of Premiere breaking or shutting down. The computer is glitching. The audio helps me get out of the stress of it. So when I manipulate the voices – [such as to] speed things up, slow things down – it’s a moment to either revisit something, like echo or emphasize something, or maybe be playful about it. 

INTERVIEWER

The audio and visuals have their own stories in their own way due to your meditative approach to do with storytelling. They are connected together. What’s harder to work on, the audio or the visuals?

MAXY

I think it goes back and forth. When I film something, I don’t want to watch it right away. That can be hard at first. With deadlines and things like this, it’s like, fuck, I gotta watch and edit it, but I love it. I’d be perfectly fine letting footage sit unseen for years and years, and then going back to it because then it’s juicier to watch it. For me, it’s easier to edit when it’s been sitting for so long that I haven’t seen it. I’m hungry to look at it. That’s kind of hard when I have to do things immediately. But then, sometimes the audio is also hard, because there’s things that I want to say, but I don’t have the words or the material for it right now. Sometimes, I’ll have a sound that I want to express through the audio, but it’s like, I don’t have it yet. I’m waiting for the thought to become clearer. I have the first part of the sentence or maybe the last part, but I need to complete it. It goes back and forth between being frustrating, but as I’m getting more support for my work, it’s becoming more of a blessing to be able to edit. I used to do it after a 10-hour day of work and then I’m exhausted, but I am doing this because I have to do it in terms of my creative needs. But now it’s like oh my god, this is a blessing that I get to make films and that people want to see more of what I have to say. That’s gonna change too. I’m open to my filmmaking changing. I think a lot of people are assuming that I just want to keep making films by myself but it’s like, no, I’m ready for the change. I want to have a crew. 

INTERVIEWER

There is so much elegance in each frame you have, whether that is just how it was originally shot or how you add some renderings to that. How do you determine which frames and effects to include, and which ones not to?

MAXY

I’m obsessed with everything artistic. I studied advertising, color theory, and art history. I really love getting into everything, even if that little graphic is in the left corner versus the right corner. I get really obsessive with it. So everything is for a big reason and really deep to me. It comes from me wanting to say something like some scenes might be less layered. That’s because I think it’s beautiful as it is. There’s something about that particular scene that I want to focus on more. I think it brings attention to what I’m trying to say, if that makes sense.

So it does require layering and the desire to see content, movies that are a little bit more artistic. I know film nerds can get real artistic about things, especially with the equipment that they’re using. But to me, a nice-ass camera with a nice-ass lens, you could point that at anything. It would look nice. The real challenge is not having all of that and wanting to say what you want to say. That’s the layering that builds the language and the story. It’s a different way of looking. But I also see that some movies and TV shows doing that a little bit. They are taking advantage of the fact that our lives every day involve multiple screens, or our lives involve certain symbols, icons, people, etc. I see that on TV a little bit more than movies personally. They are being more playful with that and more freeing with that.

INTERVIEWER

You share what’s fun and painful. You’re also sharing a personal film. Once you release it to the public, you can’t take that back. How do you determine what and what not to share?

MAXY

That was through pure trying, and failing. Then seeing what I’m comfortable with. I think that’s part of putting yourself out there. With anything you’re gonna fucking make yourself uncomfortable. It’s not always going to be the way you want it to be and that’s how you figure out what your terms are. That’s how you make your own rules by making mistakes. I used to share too much, or I used to put too much faith in the people that I thought were interested in what I had to say, but they weren’t interested. They were trying to check a box and say we got a Native artist on our roster or we got a woman filmmaker. I have enough experience under my belt from working in fashion and now with festivals, and working with museums and things like this, like, I could tell right away why they’re trying to feature my work. Now I’m like, “Okay, I learned, the good, the bad, the ugly. I know what I’ll be comfortable with, and what I’ll be uncomfortable with.” I’m just trying to live through this as safely as I can.

INTERVIEWER

When we make art, there’s always some form of protecting identities as well as maintaining integrity. We talked earlier about working with institutions, but also just laying it out there because this is not just your film but also the audience’s film. How do you sometimes feel when you have work that is out in public and you can’t take it back?

MAXY

I don’t mind that so much. I made mistakes and that’s part of it. I don’t expect to always do things perfectly. I don’t get worried about that. There’s times where I felt 300% in what I was expressing at that time, and then two years later, I’m like, “Oh, my mind changed.” I’m cool with that. That’s just part of being a person that’s growing, and I’m happy. I’m proud to learn new things and keep making my mind up in different ways. That’s cool to me. I’m like, so the work is going to do that. It’s okay, if people have seen things that are no longer part of me.

INTERVIEWER

The person that you think of when you make your films is you. How do you not let the other people just decide, like, what a certain frame will be; or, how don’t you think too much of specific audiences when you make your work?

MAXY

Well, I’m so confident in my creative voice that I wouldn’t want nobody to tell me nothing at all. Of course, people have made little comments, but it’s like, I’m so sure of my taste and my eyeballs. I love what I love. I love it so passionately that I’m like, I’m not going to show this to anybody and ask for their opinion. I’m going to show it to them, because they asked to see it.

I don’t usually show people stuff like, “Oh, can you let me know what you think?” That shit flew out the window when I left art school. I think my experience in advertising and branding really helps with that, because I was around so many artists and stylists. Everybody had their own cup of tea and that’s how they were making their bag. I saw that I’m like, “Dude, I could do that. I know what my style is. I know what I like.”

And, you know, I do think that if you’re confident in your creative voice that’s what you need to get the job. Even if someone’s taste is bad, it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to get an opportunity. There’s an audience for that stuff too. There’s bound to be shit tons of people who think my taste is bad, but I don’t give a fuck. Because I love it so much. Like I love everything that I love. So much.

INTERVIEWER

In making Gush, there’s stuff you shot nine years ago – and of course, the archival stuff that we see in your shorts. There’s also a scene between the two women in the car dealing with an abusive man in their local community. What is it like incorporating that scene – which is newer and presumably staged, because they are censored when they speak – with the existing materials?

MAXY

Those [actors] are my little cousins. I’m protective of them and they’re younger than me. I never want to speak for them. I asked them to be part of this scene, because they’d be perfect for it.

I also want to make movies. I want to have scripts and actors. Everything that I do is like practicing for the next thing. Practice, practice, practice. I’m not afraid to show, you know, [a film] that’s imperfect. Film school, art school, or anyone [with a formal background] is going to be like, “Oh, wait until it’s perfect, or wait until you have something under your belt to release it.” But that’s what I want to do.

So I did it with my cousins. We went to our gas station. I had my other cousin help me film it. A young man I met at a school when I was doing an artist talk at his film class, he showed a lot of interest. I watched some of his work and I was like, “Wait, do you want to come help me with this scene?” And he killed it. This is my idea. This is my writing. This is what I told them. I set up the scene.

They’re all not kids, but they’re younger than me. I feel like a big responsibility is to show them that one, you can do whatever the fuck you want. And two, putting yourself out there, putting your work out there is a careful experience. Not everybody is going to put care into it. But you can. So you know, I think that scene is so fucking cool. There were a lot of mistakes that I made when we were doing it. I had the young guy filming on top of the car through the sunroof. We had cameras on either side of the seats. When I was editing, I realized that his legs were in the frame. 

INTERVIEWER

I didn’t see that.

MAXY

Dude, that’s my editing skills [laughs]. It’s just so funny. I was crying while editing. I was like, Damn, how could I be so dumb. But at the same time, I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve never had a little crew for a scene that I wanted to write. That’s powerful.

I’m so proud of all of us for doing it. It’s not easy to organize. I know what a professional set looks like. So it always feels scary to do shit on my own terms, with very little support. I know what professionalism is supposed to look like, and I wasn’t there yet. And so it’s like, why even bother? In my insecure mind – in my bad and ugly, hateful thoughts – it’s like, “Why bitch? You didn’t have this or that. You could have done this.”

But I’m learning. This is why I keep pushing to make films because eventually, one day I will have all those resources. I will have the opportunity to be a leader on a very professional set. If I don’t fucking show people that I’m capable of doing it, then I’m not going to get there. That’s another aspect of showing younger people you got to believe in yourself. You gotta keep pushing despite hearing all the no’s. Despite hearing all the bad talk and just doing it. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to turn out the way you thought it was. But it’s still going to hold something so beautiful. I think it’s probably the best scene in the film. That’s my favorite for sure.

INTERVIEWER

Doing any form of creativity has a therapeutic aspect. (Need to clarify that’s it’s not therapy! But it does let us relieve ourselves from past matters.) How do you use storytelling to heal past trauma and other events, while still having fun doing it?

MAXY

Well, I think that’s part of what drives me to make stuff because every time I do make something, it is a release, and I can move on from something. There are times in the making, where things get ugly and dark. That’s part of why working at my own pace is so important – because there are times where I need to step away from the work, because it gets too dark, or it gets too much. That’s the other part of real good storytelling, real juicy art, is stuff that allows the artists to do things on their own terms.

When you think it’s going to be done, it’s not perfect. Because the living parts of the story need to either rot or die. They need time to be in the soil and shoot back up and bloom and give you something. Everything takes its own time. That’s the other part about working through the ugly bits, is I want to be honest with myself, and that’s not always easy to do. It’s not always clear.

Sometimes, you can’t even see it because you’re so close to it. It’s a balance between being honest, and time – and then also being like, you don’t want to give all of yourself away to people. Because like you said, they’re gonna take it; you can’t take it back. So there’s a care involved with making art that I think is to each their own.

INTERVIEWER

Adam Piron1Adam Piron is a filmmaker as well as the Assistant Director of the Indigenous Program for the Sundance film festival. He’s also a founder – along with Sky Hopinka, Adam Khalil, Alexandra Lazarowich – of COUSIN, a film collective that helps support Native filmmakers. –Eds. has mentioned that you’ve made multiple cuts publicly, to have the same film in different settings. What has led you to show different versions of Maat?

MAXY

Oh, because it wasn’t done and I wanted to add more to it. I had more to say on it.

When I’m talking, I can tell when people are getting annoyed by it. I’ll repeat the same concept several times – but maybe the third time is the wording that I wanted to get on the first time. It’s the same with the films. There is a point where I know I’m done – I’m not always there, but it also doesn’t mean that I can’t share it. That’s the part of putting myself out there. I know I’m gonna have to step out when things are not finished or when I feel like I’m not ready. I do understand that part of it and I’m open to doing that.

Most of the time, the things that I’m paranoid about not communicating correctly, the audience ends up getting something out of it that I didn’t even think they were gonna get. That’s the other part of the audience. They get their own experience with it. It’s not always the same as what I was trying to express. So that’s something cool about putting your work out there. You can never predict – but that’s the fun part of it, too.

INTERVIEWER

How do you know when a movie is done and just leave it as it is?

MAXY

It’s just a big feeling.  A big sign is when I want to work on a different story. 

INTERVIEWER

Each of your films’ denouements always have people in unity – whether that is multiple people in the same frame, or separately in fragmented shots. How do you get to that point after showing the darkness that we live in?

MAXY

I have to do that in my life, anyway. There’s so many awful things, and I don’t want to tell nobody what to do. I have to be clear about that. But for me, I have to come to a place of either forgiveness or love. It has to come to a place like that for me. Or else I become sick, like physically sick, if I hold on to being angry about something for years and years and years. It makes me ill. So I don’t want to be like that. ~

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.