The American that America doesn't want to know

For Max—poor, white, male and vocal—politics were a projection of the personal.

Vikram Zutshi
3 December 2017

Max Kennedy’s truck at the Minutemen encampment near the US/Mexico border. Credit: still from Max Kennedy and the American Dream directed by Vikram Zutshi. All rights reserved.

One day while scanning the Los Angeles Times I came across a headline: “A Watcher Sees Across The Divide.” The article was about Max Kennedy, an anti-immigration activist patrolling a small stretch of the US-Mexico 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 US.

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 jewelry, 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 Kaballah and the sayings of Chairman Mao.”

It was a description I couldn’t resist. As a filmmaker, and an immigrant at that, the appeal of a person like Max was obvious. He was a seething mass of contradictions, living the life of an outlaw on the fringes of society. Filming him would be like shining a light on areas of our collective psyche that rarely find a voice in the mainstream media. This was an aspect of the immigration debate that most narratives shy away from, yet one I felt we had to understand to comprehend the true complexity of the issue.

Max was the American that America doesn't want to know: poor, white, male and bigoted – and vocal with it. But in spending time with him, filming Max Kennedy and the American Dream, I realised I'd encountered someone from whom I would learn more about the tortured soul of America than anyone else I had known thus far. Max 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 were 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, Max started to open up and our conversations grew more intimate. He loved to talk, 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 his broken dreams. His deepest wish was to meet the daughter he'd never seen, born from his relationship with his Puerto Rican ex-wife who now lives in Paris.

His soliloquies would often degenerate into long-winded, tangential rants at 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 his vehicle nicknamed ‘the Green Machine’, a hulking, weather-beaten truck with large off-road tires and faded camouflage. It seemed like the only way he would calm down was with a joint of weed, which he’d fish out of 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.

We shot extensively on the other side of the border, at Tijuana as well as Sasabe in Sonora, known as the ‘Grand Central of Illegal Immigration.’ Being non-white in Mexico worked in my favour; it helped me blend in and capture some truly poignant and unguarded moments from the migrants’ journey. The film was shot and edited with two parallel tracks running simultaneously, creating an ‘Us and Them’ narrative arc—outsiders versus nativists—whose separate journeys are juxtaposed with the intent of bringing out their similarities.

Max was a frontier philosopher, often surprising me with his reflections. “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.”

What we ultimately captured was as much a result of serendipity as design, but I made a conscious decision to eliminate staged interviews because I wanted the characters to tell their own stories. I wanted to create a space to bring out raw truths about otherness, identity and belonging, not to push a particular political stance. 

For many Americans, immigration is an issue with fixed political boundaries. For Max, an outlaw surviving at the frayed margins of the American Dream, it 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, “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.”

Providing constant relief to Max’s solitary ruminations were his fellow Minutemen, a motley crew of grizzled, retired pensioners camped out in a circle of trailers. They had colourful names like Gadget, Ridge Runner, Li’l Dog, Czech Stan and 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 joining the group ranged from concern about the economy and national security to 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.

When Max secured a job at the Las Vegas motor speedway, 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 recognised that he had been tilting at windmills, and was himself a victim of the same forces that compelled migrants to leave the safety of their homeland and make the arduous trek to reach the US.

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 Sin City. After a long sabbatical in the desert, Vegas appears to him like a phantasmagoric 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 until 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’.

But two months into his new job he had 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 reconciled with his estranged sister and moved into her house. He also adopted a stray dog along the way—perhaps the only true companion he's ever had. The last time I saw Max 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 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 and make sense of. And 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.

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