Don Matis, a Hudson, Ohio, artist and self-described “Catholic lay evangelist,” paints with his beard.
In the short film of which he is the subject, part of the documentary series The Amerikans screened Sept. 22 at the Apollo, Don openly discusses his views on God, art and his path to happiness. While one couldn’t help but giggle initially at the sight of Don slapping his paint-loaded beard onto a canvas in his stylishly sparse studio, it quickly became clear that we could all do well to heed Don’s advice on the importance of kindness and authenticity in our interpersonal relationships.
Such deeply resonant human connection to the screen, found in the most unexpected of characters, is the hallmark of The Amerikans. Directed by filmmaker Mika Johnson, OC ’00, and produced by Johnson and Associate Professor of English and Cinema Studies Jeffrey Pence, the Amerikans series is a collaborative effort among faculty, alumni filmmakers and current students to illuminate the inner lives of a delightfully diverse selection of Ohioans. Each three-to-five-minute episode was created in close collaboration with its subject. Seven of the 11 existing shorts were shown at the Apollo on Saturday.
The films initially raised questions about how far Johnson would depart from stereotypes of “local color” — the first episode, depicting a Rochester, Ohio, man with a love of Cowboy Action Shooting and diesel mechanics, immediately elicited this concern — but as the shorts progressed, the audience found itself in delightfully unexpected locales across northeastern Ohio and the map of the human heart.
Just as Johnson has established the ordinary as hyper-real with close-ups of Cowboy Action members firing rifles and Lorain hairstylist Felix Caban applying his drag performance makeup, his cinematic imagination bursts into full bloom. Galaxies and rocket launches careen into focus behind the head of Danilo Vujacic, a 6-year-old boy from Oberlin, as he rhapsodizes on his desire to travel in space in “Space Man”; Brooklyn-based author Aaron Labaree, OC ’00, turns his head into an archaeological artifact for future generations, and our cultural literacy is tested as classic images of human skulls fill the screen in “Head.”
Johnson’s well-timed use of slow motion and black-and-white reenactments elevate the on-screen moments of his subjects’ lives in subtler ways; he borrows from the conventions of historical documentary without ever stepping into trite or saccharine territory. Each episode is bolstered by a student-composed soundtrack, always poignant but never intrusive — much like the stories of the subjects, whose own voices serve as their sole narration.
At the end of the day, Ethyl Moyers of Amherst, Ohio, quietly steals the show in “Napkin Tales,” with her genealogical and personal narrative as told through her collection of over 2,000 paper napkins. For each of her memories, there is a simultaneously transient and timeless memento. All 11 episodes of The Amerikans are available online at www.theamerikans.org, as is more information on their subjects, making the films mementos for the Technology Age in themselves.