I Want to Be in Amerika


An image from “Spacemen,” a webisode from local filmmaker Johnson’s “The Amerikans” series.

Lizzie Conner, Staff Writer

Amerika: a notebook in three parts, a webseries by director Mika Johnson, is progressing toward its development into a feature-length film. And like the film’s central character — a young Japanese girl who travels the U.S. in search of her father — those working on the film have found their journey unfolding in truly remarkable ways, leading them all the way here to Lorain County. This Saturday night, at 8 p.m. at 3 Doors Studio, part of the filmmaker’s journey will be unveiled.

For several years, writer/director Mika Johnson and his wife Kaori Mitsushima have rebuilt and restructured their idea for Amerika on multiple occasions, but the aim of the project has always been broader than mere filmmaking. Throughout the project’s development, Johnson and Mitsushima have continuously prioritized sustainability and social change, calculating how to build sets with the lowest environmental impact and partnering with Habitat for Humanity to borrow supplies and equipment. On an artistic level, Johnson sees Amerika as a potential blueprint for future creative projects: a blueprint of “non-profit cinema” that is largely based on a multi-pronged approach to promotion and distribution, with the ultimate goal of making both the creation of art and the art itself accessible to anyone.

The partnership between Oberlin College and the Amerika project began when Johnson met Cinema Studies Professor Jeff Pence, resulting in the department’s ongoing support of the film. Last Winter Term, Oberlin College students filmed and assisted with the production of a test-trailer for the film, which was subsequently distributed via the Amerika blog to generate attention from fans and potential contributors. Although the trailer was initially created for the purpose of moving the project forward, it now exists as a project in and of itself.

Recently, the independent company Arcanum Productions (which operates under the umbrella of a larger non-profit organization) realized that it had not yet raised the funds necessary to drive the film into production. The College, particularly Dean Sean Decatur, remained flexible in terms of their financial support, sticking with Johnson and the Amerika team when they decided to make a series of short films that on the surface have little to do with Amerika: a notebook in three parts.

These short episodes fit into a category of narratives that is similar to that of NPR’s StoryCorps, in which actors involved in Amerika — appropriately grouped together as The Amerikans — tell their own stories, relating their biographies to the world in a distinct format. In one episode, 6-year-old Danilo Vujacic explains why he loves planes, flying and the television show Planet Earth with equal and irresistible conviction. In another, Felix Caban recounts how his mother picked out his first drag queen outfit and the joy he derives from performing in full costume. In one featuring Amerika’s lead actress — Mitsushima herself — she speaks of her spiritual connection with cats, as well as her dream job of painting their portraits.

These people — The Amerikans — all live in Lorain County, essentially in Oberlin students’ backyards. Part of the motivation of creating this series is to put into practice this sermon of making art, particularly film, accessible to anyone with the drive and a little bit of equipment; we don’t have to look past our immediate community to find the potential for creative expression. These people are not necessarily “special” for any reason other than being human — they’re not celebrities or ridiculous eccentrics — but as Johnson puts it, “everyone has a poetic narrative. Everyone is interesting.” You don’t have to “go big or go home” when there is so much potential for creative relationships within our own community.

The episodes are primarily distributed on the web, so anyone with access to the Internet can hear The Amerikans’ stories. Although Johnson himself directs the interview segments, the actors are involved in every step of the production process, even making their way into the editing room to observe and participate in development. Similarly, every member of the production team has the opportunity to contribute to the overall artistic vision; for instance, College senior Micha Hilliard has overseen the majority of the photography for the project, and Conservatory sophomore and TIMARA major Eli Stine has created scores for the shorts.

Of course, The Amerikans is a commercial project designed to generate interest for Amerika: a notebook in three parts, in hopes that the film will eventually find distribution at a theater near you. But Amerikawill not come to Ohio, take what it needs and then leave; the filmmakers’ partnership with the College and community is built to last, and something beautiful will come out of that.

This Saturday night at 3 Doors Studio (right next to Beethoven’s), the project will attempt to fulfill one of its primary goals: the forging of new and otherwise impossible relationships. All five episodes of The Amerikans will be screened, and all five of the Amerikans themselves will also be present — to meet each other for the first time, and of course, to meet you.