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

THE HARTIKAINEN FAMILY STORY

Story, pictures: Lena Hartikainen – West Palm Beach, FL

The Hartikainen family - from the left: Nico, Seppo, Lena and Robert

It was May 1999  in  Helsinki. My husband, Seppo Hartikainen came to me and asked, “If I was to be offered a job in America, would you go with me? Spontaneously I replied: “Sure as long as it is not Florida!

Lo and behold, its now 2012 and I’m writing this, out of all places, in Florida. But back to 1999.  My husband is a Lutheran pastor and in August 1999 he was offered a  job to serve at the Finnish Lutheran Church in Seattle,WA.  We though it would be a nice one-to-three-year experience. Our sons, Nico “the drummer” was 12 and Robert a first grader. We are still on that same trip.

The Hartikainens settled in a Seattle suburb called Edmonds, purchasing a fixer-upper there.

When our good friend in Portland, Oregon heard that we are moving to Seattle, he predicted it will take us exactly five minutes to get used it. It proved out to be true. Naturally, the fact that we had both spend quite a bit of time in Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada, which is literally next-door, helped, as we had many friends in the Pacific North West region already.

We loved every minute of the seven and a half years that we lived there, except the traffic. My worst traffic experience was on Monday after Thanksgiving in 2006, when I got stuck on the freeway for nine hours in an ice and snowstorm!

The first years were a bit of a struggle financially for us, as it took longer than we expected to get work permit for me. So I spent the first two years renovating an old house built in the 1950’s . For a city girl from Helsinki, who has never even held a hammer in her hand, I have to say I did pretty good job. I learned how to paint, sand hardwood floors, build drywalls, lay tiles and you name it.

Lena renovated the Hartikainen family home by herself.

I loved every corner of that old house. It was a house with an unfinished basement, which we totally finished adding some 1, 000 square feet of  living space. Eventually we even added a sauna. The house was located in the suburbs of Seattle in a little town called Edmonds. It has a terminal where the ferries take you to the Olympic Peninsula.

The Washington state ferries dock in Edmonds.

It was a quaint little town with a lot of charm. We had the Pacific ocean/Puget Sound within walking distance from our home. We couldn’t have asked for more. The public schools were great and our kids blended in in no time. For the 12-year-old Nico, it took a bit longer as he was missing his friend. However, the language of music is the same everywhere. Since he was a talented drummer, the other kids and his music teacher adored him. Nico was enrolled in the pre-IB program and eventually graduated with the IB-diploma from Edmonds-Woodway High School.

The Edmonds marina

It took less for Robert to adapt as he was such an easy going little kid. On the first day however, he was a bit nervous and asked me what he should say if someone says something. “Just use what ever language skills you have and it’ll be ok,” I advised him. So we walk into the room together. As he walks in, he says: “hastala vista baby, I’ll be back!” That was all he knew in “English”. “This boy will do just fine,” the teacher smiled. And so he did.

 

While living in Washington, Lena had to re-invent herself.

While doing the renovation, I studied for a new career. Professional Life Coaching was not well known yet in the year 2000. My original intention had been to continue my studies in Social Psychology, but as an out-of-state student, the tuition was totally out of my reach, so I found coaching.

 

The Hartikainens

In Finland, I had worked for Pan Am, Delta and China Airlines in various positions – sales, customer service and management for some 10 + years.  But the travel industry jobs were scarce in the late summer of 2001 when I received my green card. Especially after 9/11 they became almost extinct. I still managed to get a job with a tour operator. My job was to organize tours to Scandinavia, Finland, Russia and the Baltic states.

My unfinished degree from Finland was bothering me. So, in 2005 I enrolled in the University of  Phoenix, and graduated with B.S. in Management two years later.

While a student, I found a job as a Call Center Manager for AAA Washington. I greatly enjoyed the job for its fast pace and great teamwork.

I also ran my first marathon in November of 2005.

At the end of 2006, my husband told me there was an opportunity for him in Florida. So in February of 2007 we found ourselves in the Sunshine State. This time just our younger son Robert came with us.

After living in the Pacific Northwest for seven years, Lena Hartikainen found herself in balmier Florida.

Nico was already 20 and had just signed a record contract with Photo Finish Records. He and his band Danger Radio were ready to tour the world. We accepted the fact that one must follow one’s dream.

 

While the rest of the family moved to Florida, the eldest son, Nico Hartikainen pursued his dreams in Hollywood.

Now we are in Florida.

My husband Seppo works at the St. Andrews Lutheran Churchas the Senior Pastor. Robert was enrolled in a small private Lake Worth Christian School in the last quarter of his last year in middle school. Again he acclimated to new surroundings without any qualms.

 

The Hartikainens at church

In 2007 recession hit Florida, which again made it challenging for me to land a job. I used my coaching skills to help others find jobs and develop their careers by launching FindYourJuice-coaching.  But I missed the energy of a larger company. While wondering how to get integrated into the local business world, I co-founded the Finnish American Chamber of Commerce Florida with three other businesspeople. I soon discovered the Finnish companies needed more help than what the chamber could offer. So, with another entrepreneur, I co-founded  Optimus Consulting Group Inc. in February of 2011. The first year has been full of excitement and hard work, which is starting to pay off. I look forward to each working day!

 

Lena Hartikainen went into business by herself in Florida, founding a consulting company.

Meanwhile Robert has graduated from high school and is finishing his first year in Palm Beach State College. Nico has lived in L.A. for the last five years, producing music, both independently and working as a sound engineer for Atlantic Records.

 

Nico Hartikainen is making a career in Hollywood as a sound engineer and a song writer.

Now that we live in Florida, a steadier stream of visitors come from Finland – most likely due to the more favorable climate and the pool in the backyard.

We did not want to acquire another renovation job in Florida, but purchased a house that had been recently upgraded. Our little Oreo-dog has been with us since 2003 and is loved by visitors and family alike.

The Hartikainen family pool attracts visitors from Finland.

Naturally, due to the role my husband has with the church and I with the FACC we have strong connections to the local Finnish community. So much so, that we don’t feel the need to visit Finland that often – perhaps every two or three years. The boys seem to long for Finland even less, as they are busy with their own lives.

Lena Hartikainen on the beach with her mom, Sisko Antturi

I can’t say I miss anything specific from Finland anymore, as the world is so global and even “näkkileipä” and rye bread can be found at a local supermarket. Naturally we miss family and friends.

The Hartikainen family has happily settled in the United States.