By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Mar 27, 2024 at 8:52 PM

According to Madison filmmaker Wendy Schneider, “Angels Of Dirt” is a documentary from two eras.

The movie, which will screen at the Milwaukee Film Festival on April 18, began its production 17 years ago as a documentary about women and girls in flat track racing in Wisconsin, focusing on a 9-year-old girl from West Allis named Charlotte Kainz.

In 2008, however, Schneider was in a horrific car accident that put her filmmaking career on hold. Then, in 2016, 20-year-old Kainz died in a race in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Schneider knew she had to finish the film, although the direction of the documentary would need to change. Touching, obviously sad, but ultimately hopeful, “Angels Of Dirt” is now ready for audiences to see the culmination of Schneider’s work.

Already an acclaimed director of the award-winning documentary, “The Smart Studios Story,” this documentary is even more personal to Schneider, and Milwaukee audiences may recognize many of our own in the film.

We caught up with Schneider before the announcement of the screening at the Oriental Theater, as well one at the Times Theater on April 20.

OnMilwaukee: You’ve finished this film almost 18 years after you started it. What’s it like to have invested so much time and so many emotions in one project?

Wendy Schneider: A lot of my life is wrapped up in in the film. It started in 2006, meeting Charlotte Kainz, and I could never have imagined how pivotal that day would become.


What was the original plot?

I had really no goal in mind other than to collect some stories from young girls racing motorcycles. And then it just led me down the path that was really complicated and really amazing in a lot of ways. 

It started out as a film about Aztalan, flat track and motocross racing, but then everything changed in 2008, right?

I was following someone down to Loretta Lynn's amateur national motocross races, and I got into a pretty bad car accident where there was loss of life. That experience pulled me out of my life entirely. I took a year off. I did trauma therapy. I closed my recording studio. I put “Angels Of Dirt” on the shelf. I think I felt like I wasn't sure where the film was going. And I felt pressure to complete a film that I didn't feel had a hook or a story or a depth and dimension that would make for a good documentary.

In 2010, Smart Studios closed, and I started working on that project, not realizing that it would take me six years to finish. So that was another really intense break from “Angels.”

The film premiered at South by Southwest. It's a great little testament to independent music and the Midwest connection to the larger story of independent rock and roll. The night that it premiered at the Oriental was the same night that I made a condolence call because Charlotte had died days before.

It's a hard moment to go back to, because she was a beacon of strength and light and kindness and coolness and talent. She just embodied friendship and humor, and she was just a stellar young person.


At that point, did you know you needed to finish the film?

It was really very soon after the loss of Charlotte that I knew I was going to pick up the film and finish it. There was no question. It was an immeasurable loss that we were going through with a lot of people in a lot of different ways. And the film, it was a spark for me because I had years of footage and I had just finished my second documentary, and I felt that I had more skills to do what I knew needed to be done.

I saw the almost-finished version at a friends and family screening last fall. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

To screen it on her birthday, Sept. 20, was really important to begin the journey of sharing the project with people. And then I had to tweak it and get it ready for festival. And now it's going to go out to Madison and Milwaukee audiences. I'm going to screen it at a couple of races. I'm going to screen it at an event in Ventura, Calif., the night before a big national race. I'm sort of following the path that Charlotte would have taken if she was racing professionally. So all of the screenings this summer will coincide with AFT (American Flat Track) events that are either the night before or the day after a screening. 

You're from Madison, but this movie does involve a lot of Milwaukee people.

I'm doing a film that is, that feels very home-spun and I'm a filmmaker that's not of the community, but I'm a filmmaker that's connected in lines of friendships. We all had a shared experience and that was, first of all, Charlotte.

Are you a racer, yourself?

I've had street bikes since I was a teenager, but I'm not competitive like that. I never wanted to race and my time in the woods is better spent walking than on a loud motorcycle. 


Another thing about this film that blew me away was the music, because I didn't really know going into it that, by and large, it's your music, right?

Most of the music in the film was custom made for the film. I come out of a background of scoring, but not original scoring. In my formative years in New York City, we're matching music to scenes and emotional content. Yes, I’m a musician. I've been a band and I've recorded, dozens and dozens of bands in my recording studio over the years, many of them from Milwaukee. But I think that with “Angels,” I felt like I could do the music. I understood the emotion that was connected to the film. I knew that I had access to musicians if I couldn't play the parts myself. I knew that it was going to be a really important emotional thread for the project. 

On a technical side, you had to manage a lot of old footage that was shot differently than how you would be shooting something now. I thought it was really artful how you blended lower resolution clips with current clips.

I'm starting with a film that 17 years ago I was shooting tape on an SD camera. I'm getting home movies from Jack that were shot way before that on camcorders. Visually, there's more of a tapestry aesthetic than there is make it all look cinematic. I think that it came together in a way that's not jarring. In fact, the colorist had made some images too cinematic, so it just doesn't look like right. I'm having to actually take filters off and leave them in the state that you saw them in. 


I almost hate to ask this, but what do you think Charlotte would think of “Angels Of Dirt?”

I think she'd like it, but I don't know. I can't really answer that. There's some footage in the film where you see Charlotte the morning after a bonfire at Aztalan and she's waving a fire with a lawn chair. I was really close to her with the camera and she wasn't looking at me, she wasn't paying attention to me. I knew that I had finally arrived at a place with her where we were going to get some really interesting work done as a filmmaker and a subject.

Because she stopped thinking about the fact that she was being filmed?

Yeah, and she allowed me to just be with her and to film her without talking. It's really beautiful footage. And that was the last footage I shot of her because then I had the accident. I think that it's really hard to have reached that point with her and then it's gone. I stepped away and then we lost Charlotte. So there's some bittersweet layers.

I went into thinking I went into seeing this film thinking this is going to be the saddest movie I've ever seen, and yet it wasn't. There were definitely sad parts. People were crying for sure. But it’s not all sad, right?

The hardest part of the film for me is that Charlotte's gone and I have to incorporate how this particular film is going to share that reality with an audience in a way that conveys sentiment across a lot of different groups of people. I knew that I didn't want to show anything that was connected to the day that we lost Charlotte, but I wanted people to go through the experience in some way that was going to be intimate.

You didn’t show the accident, which felt respectful to me.

As it says in the beginning of the film, it a film about life and motorcycle racing. And that really is the mantra of “Angels Of Dirt.” I've never seen it the accident. A lot of people had seen it. But, when I had to clear footage, I needed to reassure certain entities that I was handling her death a certain way. It was always delicate.

Instead, I was always working with more footage of her as a little life force. I was always coming back to her being with us in the way that we knew her. I think that's what we get from the film. She's just still a presence in different ways for people.



Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.