FILMMAKER MIKA JOHNSON

STORY: AARON LARABEE

PHOTOS: JACKSON BIERFELDT, JENNIFER RAY, TOMI HINKKANEN, SCREEN CAPS FROM “THE AMERIKANS”

Mika Johnson makes documentaries in Oberlin, Ohio.

Mika Johnson, a filmmaker based in Oberlin, Ohio.

Mika Johnson is an emerging Finnish-American filmmaker who is creating a body of documentary and fiction films that reveal American myths and realities in artistically excellent and entertaining new ways.

Mika’s grandparents lived in one of the exclusive Finnish immigrant enclaves of the Northwestern U.S., keeping language and customs well beyond the usual time of assimilation. Mika’s father was a restless man (a boat surveyor and commercial diver, amongst other things), and Mika himself has been quite a traveler.  Mostly raised in the Midwestern state of Ohio, Mika also lived and worked as a filmmaker internationally for six years. His wife Kaori  is Japanese.

Mika Johnson with wife, Kaori.

Mika Johnson with wife, Kaori Mitsushima.

Now based again in the university town of Oberlin, Ohio (home to the first American college to admit students of both sexes and any race, as well as the first music conservatory in the country), Johnson and his collaborator Jeffrey Pence are producing exciting work that is garnering attention.

Mika Johnson lives in Oberlin, a college town in Ohio.

Mika Johnson lives in Oberlin, a college town in Ohio.

Johnson became inspired to depict the extraordinary within the ordinary faces and places of the United States, a poetic and direct approach that blurs the line between fiction and documentary filmmaking and offers serious entertainment that stands out in the American scene. “The Amerikans” is an ongoing web series of 3 – 5 minute short documentaries that capture the unique quirks, charm, and eccentric stories of people living in the American Midwest.

Don Matis, "a human paintbrush", can be seen in an episode of "The Amerikans."

Don Matis, “a Human Paintbrush”, can be seen in an episode of “The Amerikans.”

In Johnson’s recent film, “Human Paintbrush,” the title character, Don Matis, says, “I’m a human paintbrush…and this brush is deeply rooted to my imagination, my mind, my body and my spirit.” He then demonstrates his technique, dipping his long, wizard-like beard in paint and dabbing and whipping it carefully across a canvas to create intricate patterns that recall flower-covered meadows. Matis, who peers at the camera from beneath a fuzzy purple hat, looks uncannily youthful and has an almost otherworldly gentleness and enthusiasm: he seems like a visitor from some distant time and place. In fact, he lives in Stow, Ohio, the state where Johnson has shot many of his films, where he grew up, and where he has recently found an unlikely source of inspiration.’

“In depicting Ohio – and America in general – I wanted to avoid the stereotypes of farmers, picket fences, and old industrial towns,” said Johnson.

Johnson and crew on location somewhere in Ohio.

Johnson and crew on location in rural Ohio.

To anyone who has seen The Amerikans, the series to which “Human Paint Brush” belongs, this sounds like an understatement. Along with Matis, other subjects of films in The Amerikans include a graffiti artist who writes his elaborate tag on abandoned trains (and insists on being filmed in a mask to preserve his anonymity), and a woman who has collected and meticulously categorized paper napkins for over 70 years, accumulating over 2,000 in all.

Ethel Moyers, seen in the Amerikans'" episode "Napkin Tales," has collected over 2,000 paper napkins.

Ethel Moyers, as seen in “the Amerikans'” episode “Napkin Tales,” has collected over 2,000 paper napkins.

Then there is a writer who has commissioned a silicone model of his head so that his likeness can be preserved in the event of global apocalypse. The short features blend documentary and fiction in a way reminiscent of a more cheerful Werner Herzog, the narration moving seamlessly between the subject’s daily lives and their fantasy lives.

Writer Aaron Larrabee has his head preserved in silicone in the episode aptly named "Head."

Writer Aaron Larabee has his head preserved in silicone in the episode aptly named “Head.”

The Amerikans has garnered attention from PBS and gained an international fan base. It is an unexpected reward for Johnson, who began the series as a side project to a feature film. Johnson returned to Ohio to begin work on his feature, Amerika, after working in the film industry in Japan, Europe, and New York. Amerika, which has recently begun production, is a dark portrait of its title country. It tells the story of Kat, a refugee from a hostess club in Tokyo who flees her homeland and crisscrosses America in the company of various dreamers, degenerates, and oddballs. Johnson lists Finnish-American director David Lynch and famed Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki among his influences. Like Lynch, Johnson is fascinated by the grotesque and mysterious elements of the American landscape. Like Kaurismäki, his work features unhurried pacing, a mixture of trained and non-professional actors, and deceptively simple storylines, techniques he has employed in his previous films, Yonder and The Mountain of Signs.

There's an ever increasing cast of oddball characters in the series "The Amerikans."

There’s an ever increasing cast of oddball characters in the series “The Amerikans.”

“It’s this minimalist style that goes back to Bresson, Ozu and Melville that appeals to me,” says Johnson. “Except for Jim Jarmusch, you rarely see this deliberately pared-down approach in American cinema.”

Amerika has begun shooting on locations in Ohio, and Johnson has sited a variety of locations around the country: scenes of both iconic grandeur — the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore — iconic ruin — the urban ruins of Detroit — and everything in between.

Mika's film shoot took him to the iconic location of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.

Mika’s film shoot took him to the iconic location of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.

“My goal for the end of the film is to work with dancers from various Native American tribes in a large ritual,” says Johnson, adding, “That will take some arranging.”

Johnson’s collaborators on the project include his producer, Jeffrey Pence, a professor of Cinema Studies at Oberlin College, and his wife, Kaori Mitsushima, who plays the role of Kat.

Kaori Mitsushima plays a role of Kat in Mika Johnson's movie Amerika.

Kaori Mitsushima plays a role of Kat in Mika Johnson’s movie Amerika.

Amerika also features a cameo appearance by Johnson’s father, Dick, the son of Finnish immigrants from Centralia, Washington, a Finnish enclave whose residents assiduously preserved their national culture, traditions and language long after assimilation.

Mika's grandparents lived in Centralia, a Finnish enclave in Washington.

Mika’s grandparents lived in Centralia, a Finnish enclave in Washington.

“Growing up,” says Johnson, “I rarely thought about my Finnish heritage. But now I’m proud when I see the influence of Finnish designers on my work, or a shared aesthetic with directors like Kaurismaki or the filmmakers who did the documentary Steam of Life, Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen. As a filmmaker, I’d love to discover those elements of Finnish culture that are still expressed in my family, generations later. I have this daydream of being able to visit Finland with my father, who has never been there, and document the process.”

In the meantime, Johnson is keeping busy, between working on Amerika and finishing the last two episodes of The Amerikans. After years spent travelling and working overseas, he says it’s been exciting to discover the creative potential of the American heartland. The latest episode of The Amerikans, Johnson says, is about a beekeeper in Wellington, Ohio, who believes in the healing power of bee venom and treats people by stinging them.

Mika Johnson has found the creative potential of the American heartland.

Mika Johnson has found the creative potential of the American heartland.

“I’d never seen anything like it before,” says Johnson. “People swear by it. They get bee stings on the scalp, on the hands, in the mouth. And the beekeeper has enlisted a whole community around this, helping to take care of the bees and even to apply the stings to each other. When I tell my friends in New York and L.A. about it, they think it’s totally exotic. But it’s completely American.”

Mika Johnson's "The Amerikans" series shows a different face of America.

Mika Johnson’s series “The Amerikans”  shows a different face of America.

The Amerikans can be seen at www.theamerikans.org

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