Max Kennedy and the American Dream Featured

Max Kennedy and the American Dream is Vikram Zutshi’s intimate portrait of a poor white man strongly opposed to illegal immigration from Mexico. The documentary reveals Kennedy’s tangled hopes, dreams, and fears, formed by decades of living on the fringes of the American Dream. Zutshi’s film reinforces the expression that when it comes to humanity, there is no simple explanation for our beliefs, and no easy answer to our social problems.

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He was the American that America doesn’t want to know: poor, white, male and bigoted – and vocal. But while filming Max Kennedy and the American Dream, I realized I’d encountered someone from whom I would learn more about the maverick soul of America than anyone else.

Being an immigrant myself, and having moved to Los Angeles over two decades ago, I’ve always been affected by its incredible ethnic diversity, a potpourri of cultures that have greatly enriched my life. One day, while scanning the LA Times, I came across the headline, “The Watcher Sees Across The Divide.” The article was about Max patrolling a small stretch of the border in the beautiful, inhospitable mountains of southeast San Diego County. The Minuteman Project, to which he then belonged, is a controversial activist organization that monitors the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

The article described Max as, “a lanky, sunburned man with a scraggly goatee and a voice like a fistful of desert gravel. In his 53 years, he says, he has driven a cab in Miami and ferried fur coats in New York, peddled marijuana and jewellery, played bass in a punk band and marched with 1960s radicals. He has been a Gingrich Republican and a pagan, a seeker of meaning in the Kabbalah and the sayings of Chairman Mao.”

It was a description I could not resist. The appeal of a person like Max was irresistible. He was a seething mass of contradictions, living the life of an outlaw on the fringes of society. It would be like shining a light on areas of our collective psyche that rarely finds a voice in the mainstream media. This was an aspect of the immigration debate that most narratives shied away from, yet one I felt was necessary to understand if we were to comprehend the true complexity of the issue.

Max Kennedy and the American Dream

The author of the original article kindly consented to put me in touch with Max. Following a round of phone calls and meetings, he agreed to have a camera crew follow him, if we could endure the privations of life on the arid border. The nine months that followed was a social experiment infused with a strange irony: an anti-immigration activist and vigilante telling his story to an immigrant filmmaker.

Over time, as he got comfortable with the presence of a camera, he started to open up and our conversations grew more intimate. Max loved to talk: he was an eclectic and articulate person who held forth on Middle-Eastern politics (he opposed the Iraq War), post-war Europe, ancient Egypt, Che Guevara, Chairman Mao, JFK, Bush, art house cinema and, punk rock. He discussed his abusive childhood and abandonment by his mother, his string of failed relationships and broken dreams. His deepest wish was to meet the daughter he’d never seen but had with a Puerto Rican ex-wife that now lived in Paris.

His soliloquies would often degenerate into long-winded, tangential rants about everything he perceived to be a symbol of the “system” that threatened to take away his freedoms. A “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker was proudly displayed on the dashboard of the vehicle he nicknamed The Green Machine: a hulking, weather-beaten truck with large off-road tires and faded camouflage colors. It required a constant effort to put up with his mercurial temperament and frequently unhinged rants. On several occasions I found myself on the verge of telling him to STFU, but instead pressed the “record” button on my camera.

By then, he was beyond caring about what was recorded on film. It seemed like the only way he would calm down was with a joint, which he’d fish out from his glove compartment before turning in for the night. The medically prescribed cannabis was probably the only thing that kept him from completely losing it in the desert all those brutal winter nights.

Max Kennedy and the American Dream

The team was now down to just two people: the field producer (Fabio Dozzini) and me. Clearly it was not a good idea to stand out in these parts and the only way to capture anything worthwhile was to blend in and try to be invisible. Fabio accompanied me on most of the trips across California, Arizona and Nevada as well as into Mexico. His proficiency in Spanish was a huge asset. We shot extensively on the other side of the border, in Tijuana as well as Sasabe in Sonora, otherwise known as the Grand Central of illegal immigration. Being non-white in Mexico worked in my favor; it helped me blend in and capture some truly poignant and unguarded moments from the migrants’ journey, moments that may have been inaccessible for a gringo team to catch. My 4×4 became our home for the duration of the journey. Life on the road became second nature and I soon began to enjoy it.

The film was shot and edited with two parallel tracks running simultaneously, creating an “Us and Them” narrative arc: those perceived as outsiders vs. the Nativists, whose separate journeys are juxtaposed with the intent of bringing out their similarities. The decision to go across the border and get the other side of the story was an organic one. However, the editing strategy and narrative structure only emerged on the editing table.

Max was a frontier philosopher, often surprising me with his reflections, many of which are captured on film. “I can understand it now, in all of these holy books, where prophets go off into the desert,” he told me, “somehow the isolation brings them to a spiritual revelation … I became a part of this desert. It’s amazing how deep you can get into it. I know all the animals and all the animals know me.”

I used that quote in the opening sequence to bring out the dissociative, almost schizoid quality of his monologues. Indeed, Max could be three different people over the course of a single day. I edited the film to bring out the cognitive dissonance of the material as well as create a narrative trajectory on multiple levels, tracing his journey temporally, physically and as philosophically over the course of the year.

Due to the peculiar nature of the subject, what we ultimately captured was as much a result of serendipity as it was design. I realized there is only so much one can plan while setting out to do cinema verite: observational, narrative non-fiction as opposed to talking heads, voiceovers and standard exposition. I made a conscious decision to eliminate the staged interviews from the final edit and make the film all about its actual characters and their unfolding lives. In other words, I wanted the characters – Max and his counterparts on the other side of the divide – to tell their own stories without mediation and without tempering them with my own agenda. I was interested more in creating an experiential space to bring out raw universal truths of otherness, identity and belonging, rather than pushing a political stance.

For many Americans, immigration is an issue for polite dinner-table debate, but with fixed political boundaries. For Max, an outlaw surviving at the frayed margins of the American Dream, immigration was a deeply human matter that had made him reflect on his own life. “I started noticing the look in the migrant’s face,” he confessed to me. “I mean, they are as poor as I am. They are at the bottom of their world, and basically I am at the bottom of my world.”

Max Kennedy and the American Dream

Providing relief from Max’s solitary ruminations were his fellow Minutemen, a motley crew of grizzled, retired pensioners camped out in a circle of trailers. They had colorful names like Gadget, Ridge Runner, Li’l Dog, Czech Stan, Kingfish and equally eclectic reasons for being there. Most of them were happy to cooperate with me, except for Czech Stan and Kingfish, who felt I looked “too left-wing” to trust. All of them insisted they were not racist. Their reasons for being there ranged from concern about the economy and national security to preventing drug smuggling, terrorism and human trafficking. My closeness with Max ensured that I was able to capture him and his fellow Minutemen in the most extraordinary and candid moments, giving us close to a hundred hours of footage to sift through at the end. Post-production took as long as six months before we finally had a decent-looking cut. I put together an initial rough assembly running at 110 minutes with editor Paul Belanger, and then sat down to do a final cut with Robin Lee with a total running time of 76 minutes. We later had to edit a 55 minute version for the film’s broadcast run.

When Max scored a job at the Las Vegas racetrack, he was happy to leave his border outpost. He had also grown disenchanted with the Minuteman movement, which he felt had been hijacked by Bible-thumping evangelicals and narrow-minded right-wing ideologues, none of whom shared his post-hippy ‘liberal’ views on culture and society. Moreover, Max recognized that he had been tilting at windmills all along and he was a victim of the same forces that compelled the migrants to leave the safety of their homeland and make the arduous trek to reach the U.S.

One of the highlights of the film is when Max drives into Vegas for the first time and is struck with the brash neon glare of the Sin City. After a long sabbatical in the desert, Vegas appears to him like a phantasmagorical spectacle – he calls it “Disneyland for adults.” Life seems to be looking up once again. His friend has given him the use of his big house with a pool till he can find his feet. Max can scarcely believe his good fortune. At one point he even says, “I’m going to live and die in Vegas.” These scenes are extremely poignant and revealing especially when viewed in the context of what happens next.

Two months into his new job at the Las Vegas motor speedway, Max has an accident while riding his scooter, breaking several bones in his left foot. After several months of painful recovery shacked up in a trailer home, he reconciles with his estranged sister and moves into her house. He has also adopted a stray dog along the way: perhaps the only true companion he’s ever had.

The last time I saw Max (and the final scene in the film) was at the border where he was recuperating in his trailer with his leg in a cast, popping large doses of high-grade Vicodin to numb the pain.

As uncomfortable as I found much of his worldview, I was constantly struck by how complex and indefinable Max was: a blue-collar Brooklynite turned into a post-modern frontiersman; an anti-immigrant activist, co-opted by the Right, who loathed Christianity and capitalism and identified with the struggle of poor Mexicans. He was a figure who, like America itself, was a mass of contradictions, impossible to decode. A journey over the parched, broken rocks of his own life was what the Minuteman project offered him. For Max, as for everyone else, his politics were only a projection of the personal. MM

Watch the trailer for Max Kennedy and the American Dream:

Max Kennedy and the American Dream is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandor, Journeyman VOD, Syndicado and Walmart video. MM

All photos copyright Fabio Dozzini.

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