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'Angels of Dirt' documentary shares stories of love, loss and community

Charlotte Kainz on the Flat Track course with her first "35L" - marking the start of her professional racing career.
Image courtesy of "Angels of Dirt"
Charlotte Kainz on the Flat Track course with her first "35L" - marking the start of her professional racing career.

Wisconsin has an impressive, homegrown motorcycle racing scene that’s supported many riders from childhood well into adulthood as professional racers. One of those racers was West Allis native Charlotte Kainz.

A new documentary called "Angels of Dirt" digs into the bruising, adrenaline-fueled world of Flat Track racing and Charlotte’s life growing up on and off the track as she pursued her dream of being a professional racer.

Madison-based independent filmmaker Wendy Schneider was first introduced to the world of motorcycle racing through the Aztalan Cyle Clubin Lake Mills, Wis. "I would drive to Milwaukee and I would see the track from the highway and I started going to the track as a fan, and pretty soon after I noticed that there were a number of young girls racing motorcycles I thought it would be interesting to talk to a few of them about why they raced."

Starting in 2006, Schneider showed up to the Aztalan race track with her camera and the first young racer she met was Charlotte, who was 9 years-old at the time.

"I think that the juxtaposition of motorcycle racing and a young, quiet, soft-spoken little girl who calls you 'Miss Wendy' very politely as you chat with her was extraordinary to me. And I loved being able to lean in to how that felt when I first met her," she recalls.

Image courtesy of "Angels of Dirt"
Charlotte Kainz

The documentary was originally very broad for Schneider during her first three years of filming. She refers to it as the "first era" of Angels of Dirt, focusing on the environment of Flat Track racing and Motocross, with many interviews with other young female riders.

"The approach was just collect footage," Schneider notes. "Charlotte, Charlotte's family, I developed more of a connection with [them] so there was just more depth in the work that I was doing with her."

However, in 2008 on her way to shoot more race footage, Schneider was involved in a serious car accident which caused her to step away from the film. Schneider then moved further away from "Angels of Dirt" as she shifted to working on another independent documentary about music for six years.

"Almost to the day that that doc was released when I came here to premiere it at the Oriental Theatre in 2016, that was the same evening I did a condolence call because Charlotte had crashed racing professionally in Santa Rosa, California," recalls Schneider. "... It was a very intense crossroads for me as a filmmaker because almost immediately I knew I was going to start Angels of Dirt again in an 'era two' kind of approach and focus the film on the story of Charlotte Kainz."

This second era was a challenge for Schneider as she wrestled with how to tell a story with older footage weaved into a new film that now focused on loss and how it impacts people's lives. However, one easy through line that always stood out to her was the motorcycle racing community that always had a "passion and devotion to each other."

"Community is a very strong energy in Flat Track," notes Schneider. "What I noticed spending a lot of time in the Flat Track community, particularly picking the film up after we lost Charlotte, most of my interviews were about her or reflecting on the connection that people had to her, to community."

While Schneider played many roles in the making of the documentary, she also wrote the score for the film. "I think developing an emotional thread for the film using music was really how I was going to contribute my voice to the movie," she says.

Now that this labor of love is complete after 17 years and being shown to audiences, Schneider says all the challenges in the journey of making this film are rewarded by observing how Charlotte's story resonates with audiences of all backgrounds.

"Moments of the film where there's laughter, weeping, enthusiasm — those are amazing experiences for me to go through because it has been such a private and isolating experience for all these years," she says. "My heart, my head, everything is involved. But to have the film received and to have the story of Charlotte and other women and Flat Track racing go out into the world and be received in a way that feels really organic and fun and thrilling. I don't know, I think that that's remarkable for me."

"Angels of Dirt" will be showing as a part of the Milwaukee Film Festival with screenings on April 18 & 20. Wendy Schneider will be attending both screenings for audience Q&A's following the film.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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