Atlas O. Phoenix sits in the black box theater of Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. They call it the site of their resurrection.
“It was the beginning of everything. It was a rebirth,” says Phoenix. “Oh, so many things happened here. I became a performer. I met the love of my life.”
It’s where, beginning in 2017, Phoenix found community through performing with Dykes Do Drag — the longstanding art performance cabaret, which helped them find the foundations to return to a film practice that began decades earlier.
On this day in June, it’s where Phoenix is reflecting on their filmography, particularly as a transmasculine, Black, disabled, nonbinary filmmaker. The Trylon Cinema is hosting a retrospective Thursday night, screening films connected by vulnerability.
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“I recently made a post on Instagram and Facebook where I said the most confident thing you can do is be vulnerable,” Phoenix says. “It’s the point of all the work that I do. And I didn't realize how confident I was until I sat down to watch the body of work that I created over 20 years.”
Phoenix adds: “And I'm like, ‘You're confident; you need to recognize that confidence.’ And what is it that makes you confident? All of these films are vulnerable. They expose me in such ways.”
That work on view includes the 2001 feature film “Cord,” an unflinching autobiographical telling of their abusive relationship with their mother. And “Little Men,” a 2019 short film about two young boys growing up in poverty and the existential threats they face.
Phoenix says each boy represents a part of themselves. The film was shot in Minneapolis and premiered at the Riverview Theater. The retrospective will also screen their 2003 music video for rapper Brown Child’s “This One,” which depicts a house party shot in an ice shanty on a frozen Lake Osseo.
There are also short autobiographical documentaries shot in black and white, solely starring Phoenix. These include 2020’s “Do I Qualify for Love?” and 2022’s “Ordinary,” the latter of which just won awards from the AVIFF French film festival and the Out & Loud — Pune International Queer Film Festival in India.
Through Phoenix’s monologue, these documentaries explore trauma, suicide attempts, healing, identity, transition and affirming surgeries. Phoenix began their transition in 2021 at the age of 50.
In “Ordinary,” using footage shot at a friend’s cabin in Wisconsin edited together with photos of Phoenix, the filmmaker finds wonder in their skin. They discuss racism and hurtful comments about their weight, as well as past and upcoming affirming surgeries.
“Sexuality and gender are fluid to me. I have a message for you: Love my skin, baby! Love all of it! I’ve triumphantly had my skin for 51 years. It’s served me well, despite the disrespect,” Phoenix narrates.
Phoenix often calls these documentaries survival guides.
“People being able to see pieces of themselves or people they love or learn something new, I think part of that is that my story can be someone else's survival guide, the way that any biography I've ever read or watched, has been a survival guide for me,” Phoenix says.
That’s exactly what they are, says Phoenix’s friend and fellow filmmaker Chris Aguilar-Garcia. Especially in this urgent moment of anti-trans politics and violence, says Aguilar-Garcia, who also works at a Colorado nonprofit that focuses on mental health in the queer community.
“It’s really such a vital beacon right now,” Aguilar-Garcia says. “Both for trans folks, and trans youth especially, to see these possibilities of what a trans life looks like, and as well for folks who are not part of the community or who don't know trans folks, to see a portrait of a person, and what it actually means to really bring the humanity to what a trans identity is.”
Phoenix, who is originally from Columbus, Ohio, first got into film while a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the nineties. They flunked out and became homeless for a period.
“It made me who I am,” Phoenix says.
They would go on to work for production crews on films like "Grumpier Old Men" and music videos and a VH1 special for Prince, a dream come true for Phoenix. Since they were a teen, when their father brought home Prince’s “1999” album and a poster, the artist has been a hero for the filmmaker.
“The first pop album I ever owned was ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson and ‘Off the Wall,’” Phoenix recalls. “But when I played ‘1999,’ I felt liberated. My walls were wallpapered with the Jacksons and I took all of that down, put it in the basement, and I put up a singular poster of Prince. I could breathe again. I didn't feel that I needed to compete with everybody else. I just needed to compete with myself. I just needed to make myself the best I could make myself and I have been following Prince ever since.”
Phoenix says they have always been scraping by to find funding for their films, through their own cash, and stringing together grants and the generosity of others. Nonetheless, their films have been screened locally at the Walker Art Center, Intermedia Arts, MSPIFF and Mia, as well as at festivals nationally and internationally.
Deb Girdwood is the moving image program manager at the Walker Art Center and has known Phoenix, and has been following their work, for years. Phoenix asked her to moderate the Q&A following the retrospective screening at the Trylon.
“I think Atlas has been a marginalized member of the film community for a long time,” Girdwood says. “Independent filmmaking is incredibly difficult financially, and adding to that, just like biases, racism, just all the isms, that happen in industries and just like not being a part the dominant narratives. There's a lot of barriers that they've really overcome and just persevered over time and are still making work. I think that’s really remarkable about Atlas.”
Phoenix is overdue for recognition, Girdwood says; they are doing something radical in filmmaking to prioritize their inner voice.
“I think that really is taking power and agency over their own personal narrative to say what they've been through and why they're still making films and are going to make films going forward,” Girdwood adds. “I mean, I'm really excited for ‘Beautiful Boi.’ And I think that's going to display a great fruition of all this work they've been doing.”
At the retrospective, Phoenix will introduce “Beautiful Boi,” a work in progress about the end of the relationship with their best friend, the love of their life whom they met at Bryant Lake Bowl.
“We were friends, and our friendship came to an end, but it transformed me, it transmuted me,” Phoenix says.
But it’s also about documenting a 40-year mental health journey; Phoenix has been filming themselves for the past few years for “Beautiful Boi,” as well as writing essays for the Walker Art Center.
“As I was going through my therapy from 2021 to literally last week, I started to discover: ‘You are a “Beautiful Boi.” Look at all this work that you're doing and look at all this energy that you're putting out.’” Phoenix says.
The day after the retrospective, Phoenix will fly to France to accept the award for “Ordinary” at the film festival in Marseille. They will then go to Paris, a city they visited as a young artist that left a lasting impression, where they “discovered beautiful things.”
“It was so important for me to get back to Paris this year,” Phoenix says. “The opportunity to sit in a cafe and write ‘Beautiful Boi’ is exhilarating, and it's such a blessing. I almost can't even fathom it.”
“Beautiful Boi” is slated for release in 2026.