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An Amerikan Revolution Part 2: Rise of the Amerikans

July 8, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Jay Nolan

Director Mika Johnson doesn't want to stop the shorts even if the film gets made. “The Amerikans is a solution to the Hollywood industry.”

By late 2010, 7 years after Director Mika Johnson began work on the project, Amerika: A Notebook in Three Parts was essentially dead in the water. Countless hours of work had gone into the project. But only mild interest had been shown, certainly not enough to fund the feature shoot, post-production and distribution.

When you have dedicated so many years, sweat and blood, packing it in is not an option. Johnson took what he had: a great website, a dedication to local and environmentally friendly filmmaking, collaboration with enthusiastic filmmakers as well as civilians, experience with working without a budget, and lots of local contacts, and kept working.

Johnson: “Since day one, Jeff Pence (Professor at Oberlin College, producer, advisor and collaborator on Amerika) and I structured this collaboration with the college and community and we both felt we’d come too far to simply give up or move on. So by November 2010, we didn’t have a budget to make the feature film; but we had a whole community of local people and students behind us; and we had notes on an experiment that had only just begun; and so the question for us was: How do we translate our inspiration into something that would push the project forward?”

Amerika was based on the ideals of local filmmaking. Johnson sought non-actors to play roles – usually themselves – and in the process met many interesting people with unique stories. While searching for new directions to take Amerika Johnson began making short form documentaries about the non-actors he had befriended. Johnson stuck to his carefully composed shooting style, inspired by mostly by the Eastern Masters, and added elements of Herzog to create something more than a documentary; something closer to poetry.

“So ‘The Amerikans’ was born, in one sense, out of desperation; or the realization that we can’t make a two hour film…yet. But we can make some 3 – 5 minute films. And while we hope that these short films will attract the support needed to make the feature, at this point our relationship to ‘The Amerikans’ is no less important; and we see these productions as continuing alongside one another as the feature gains momentum. We’re here and we’re doing what we set out to do, albeit on a different scale and on a different time-line… As someone who believes that interesting art is often born out of major setbacks and limitations, I’ve learned to adapt and learn by this process…”

Felix Caban prepares for a preformance

Without the restrictions of a script, or even a budget, Johnson was able to work creatively and closely with the subjects of his docs, making sure he told their stories. He would even have them attend editing sessions to offer input and ideas as the individual films came together.

Johnson: “…There’s no real budget per-se. The editing hours are around 80 per episode, since that’s where the narrative develops. So it’s mostly my time rather than a question of dollars; the actual productions don’t really cost much, except for transportation and food…”

Johnson is up to 6 films on his website at the time of writing, with a seventh coming very soon. All the videos tell the extraordinary true stories of ordinary people whom Johnson worked with during Amerika, giving face and voice to the people around him. While watching these, it is impossible not to realize that everyone does have a story to tell, and cinema can be the platform for these stories. From Tom Thomes, a modern-day frontiersman, to Felix Caban, a hair stylist, father, and drag queen performer, to a young boy with an obsession for flying.

Johnson may not be making his feature Amerika: A Notebook in Three Parts right now, but he is doing what he loves the way he wants to do it. He is making beautiful films, by and for the local community, with green filmmaking practices. It is arguably more important because it is about real people, not actors. It is about our society at this time and place in the universe.

Johnson: “I’ve really enjoyed spending time with people like Tom Tomes, learning from them, creating something with them, and then looking back and realizing that the film was the least important part of that process. It makes me think of the camera, and filmmaking in general, as this tool – or experience – that gives me access to a part of the world that I otherwise would have no connection to.”

Modern Day Cowboy Tom Thomes

From both his disappointments and his successes, Johnson has learned a lot about filmmaking in the process:  ”I’ve learned to approach each project, including each episode of “The Amerikans,” as if it might be my last project… Filmmaking is just too labor intensive to make something that you don’t truly believe in, even if it’s only four minutes.”

“It may sound like a cliche, but I believe that everything that happens for a reason. So when you look at life like that and you can’t make a film that you’ve been prepared to make for several years, it’s a hard pill to swallow. It means I can’t put the blame on anyone or anything. I just have to wait and keep going, as if the process itself is part of some strange spiritual practice that I wasn’t aware I signed up for.

…Don’t wait. Work with whatever you have, at every stage, and just keep going. If you approach it like a ritual, the process itself is the reward.”

"The Amerikans" from left to right: Kaori Mitsushima, Lenny Rumph, Aaron Labarree (Head), Reinaldo Colon, Tom Tomes, Felix Caban, and Danilo Vujacic (Front). Photo courtesy of Robbie Schneider

Johnson sets a perfect example of what every DIY filmmaker should do: don’t wait, adapt, be an active part of the community, and always keep that camera on. Johnson doesn’t spend every day lamenting the state of his masterpiece feature, he spends it looking onward and upward to the next film project that he can work on.

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