The Minuteman Project is an activist group in the US that, generally speaking, doesn't like immigrants. "Minutemen", so named after a militia from the Civil War, live in the desert running along the United States-Mexico border tracking footprints, waving guns about and performing what they see as their duty: protecting the U-S-of-A from pesky foreign interlopers. One of these men was "Mad Max" Kennedy.
Such was Kennedy's appeal that filmmaker Vikram Zutshi – an Indian immigrant living in Los Angeles – decided to make a film about him. Vikram went out into the desert with a camera, followed Max around for a year and made Max Kennedy and the American Dream. However, not all the Minutemen were as nice to Vikram as Max was, and by the end of the film Max had renounced his Minuteman ways (although not necessarily all of his views). Here's the trailer:
Vikram spoke to us, offering to fill us in on the enigmatic Max Kennedy and why, deep down, he's a pile of soft cuddles who just wishes the world could understand him.
VICE: Hi Vikram. Max Kennedy and The American Dream is your first documentary, right?
Vikram Zushti: That's right.
What kind of films do you usually make?
I used to be a writer and producer. I did two films while living in Los Angeles, where I've been for about 15 years. But I wanted to branch off and do my own thing. Immigration is a crisis in the US, especially in the South, and I really wanted to study it from an unexpected human perspective.
So, what interested you in Max?
I thought that following Max would be more interesting than following an immigrant because of the whole aspect of xenophobia. Being an immigrant myself, it interested me to study what lies at the heart of someone who is perceived to be an arrogant, aggressive personality. We spent nearly a year following him, mostly out in the desert, before he went to Vegas.
A typical Minuteman's cosy abode.
While you were out in the desert, did you stay in a tent or caravans like some of the other Minutemen out there?
No, no. When we were out with him we lived in our car, my 4x4.
His ideology and thinking is hard to pigeonhole. His rants in the film attack anybody from immigrants, Christians, Americans, politicians, the media, other Minutemen… What would you say he is most angry about?
It seems to be America. He has acknowledged that the immigrant problem and his role as a Minuteman was symbolic of taking a stand against something. He realises that towards the end. Max was looking for something to fight for, but couldn't do much about it at the end of the day.
He seemed to want to fight for something more than he believed in what he ended up fighting for. Do you think he was quite confused?
That's it, exactly. He was essentially an anti-establishment type right from the beginning. You can't really slot him into left-wing or right-wing, you know what I mean? The mainstream media, whether it's CNN or the BBC, they like to paint people like him into corners with no middle ground. It's a construct. There is a vast number of people in the American heartland who have absolutely nobody to speak for them on either side of the political spectrum. I mean, the media represent people like Max as an ultra-right-wing conservative, but Max admires Che Guevara, which is very odd for the stance he takes as an anti-immigrant Minuteman out in the desert. I mean, when he says he isn't racist he points out that he had a Puerto Rican wife.
You shot some of the film in Mexico and spoke to a lot of different groups of migrants. Why are they all so keen to get into the States?
I would say most of them come to the US for work, they're there to make a living. But then there are also those who are petty criminals and gang members. What's ironic is a number of people we met in the film who've been deported to Mexico actually had lived in the US for a long time, over 20 years, basically their whole lives. They would get caught on a technicality, you know, driving without a license or something, then get deported out of the blue. There was a large number of people who came to the US 20 or 30 years ago, who had children in the US, but who were never able to get official. Because of the nature of the laws, a lot of people live and work in the shadows. There's a whole subculture and community that live like that, in the shadows.
I guess if you can't get a well-paid job because you're illegal, gang life starts to look more attractive.
Very much so, it's easy money to sell drugs. Working a minimum wage job in the US will get you $8 an hour, selling drugs can get you $500 an hour. But then there were migrants risking everything to get into the States from Mexico just to work and bring the cash back to live off, because money and food in Mexico are so tight. The contrast between these guys and the people who had lived most of their lives in the US was pretty startling. Most of the people in the latter group seemed like foreigners in their own homeland.
What everyone in this film really, really cares about.
Max mentions a lot of these problems himself, but also expresses sympathy for immigrants. Why do you think he really became a Minuteman?
He's always been on the fringes of society, economically very strung out. That leads to his frustration, he's never been able to find a slot and he feels disenfranchised. He feels people like him, who are American, aren't getting a fair shake and that immigrants get all these benefits and sympathy. People like him don't get any sympathy, basically because they're white. What I found interesting was that Max didn't fall into the mould for a Minuteman. He was more a discontented individual, I would say he was kind of a frustrated intellectual.
What is the mould for a Minuteman?
The Minuteman typically is a right-wing Christian idealogue, with very conservative values and some undercurrent of bigotry there. Max was a different story.
They're essentially vigilantes, what is their relationship with border control like?
Unofficially, they have permission to do what they do. Technically, they're not allowed to apprehend anyone themselves, they report information back to border control. But they're allowed to take weapons with them – for self-defence.
How often do they use them?
Several of them claim to have had encounters with narco-traffickers who were transporting methamphetamine or other narcotics across the border into the US. But they're not allowed to shoot anyone, they're allowed to carry arms as a 'deterrent', to scare them off. It's that cowboy ideology, living out in the desert with no one else but your gun. There was an incident in 2009 where a woman called Shawna Forde shot an immigrant and his daughter. She was convicted of manslaughter.
Did you ever meet animosity from the Minutemen?
Yes, I mean, there were a couple of them who wouldn't speak with me. They thought I was from a "left-wing news organisation" and, because I wasn't white, they were scared that I would pass on information that could be used against them.
It was interesting, because one of them was Czechoslovakian with this really thick accent and I was like, "Man, what are you doing here?" He got pissed and took out his gun and started firing into the air. That was kind of scary, but by then I was used to it, that's pretty much what they do to vent.
It seems like it's really a bit of a boys club, something to keep them busy.
Sort of. Some of them are quite old.
Max during one of his trademark rants or "reflections".
How did Max differ from the other Minutemen on a personal level?
Spending that much time together, I developed a really close bond with Max. We were together for hours, hearing each other's innermost thoughts. Shooting the film was almost like a weird social experiment with an immigrant filmmaker spending nearly a year with an anti-immigrant activist. It was a very interesting dynamic.
Do you think that relationship between you changed him?
Yes, I think so. He's a very well-read articulate human being who is very well-versed in the history and cultures on the Arab world, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, Africa and so on… So, you could discuss all these issues with him in detail. That was very odd for someone in his position. You wouldn't believe it, but a guy like this was a major Federico Fellini fan. But he wasn't able to have these conversations with anyone else. That's essentially what turned him against the other Minutemen, he basically thought they were stupid.
I guess there's more to him than meets the eye.
Yeah, but also he was a broken man. His life hadn't turned out how he thought it would, he just feel screwed over by the system.
What's he up to nowadays?
Yeah, he's living with his sister in LA, who he reconciled with. Last I heard he was looking for a job as a truck driver.
Max Kennedy and the American Dream is being distributed by Journeyman Pictures. Go here for more information about its release.