Saving North, saving yourself
Winner of Yu. P. Pishchulin prize "For the best initiative in the preservation of cultural heritage" 2019. American and Russian documentary Director Mitchell Johnson. This year's award-winning story is about how it was possible to light a fire with one match: how one person managed to set in motion many people for a good cause. It's about Russia and its cultural heritage, although it all began in California, in the legendary Fort Ross. American documentary filmmaker Mitchell Johnson met Russian carpenter Alexander Popov there. He came to America to build a windmill (such a quixotic story on the contrary). Two people from different continents have found each other — and a common cause for many years to come. Popov made a huge impression on me, — says Mitchell. I wanted to follow him, even though I didn't even know what he was doing. And every three or four months, I'd go to him and take pictures of what he was doing. I got to know him a lot better. When Popov is asked who he thinks he is, he says that he is not really an artist, and not really an architect, and not a carpenter, but a combination of all these hypostases. But most of all he uses intuition as a tool, embodying all his knowledge in his creation. That's what I like most about him. Today we have become specialized to the limit, and I am more interested in people with broad views and understanding, people who can collect something from disparate particles — to collect not only a wooden Church, but also a picture of life, to answer the question: "Who are we? Where are we going?”
So began the project, which received the name Saving North — "Saving the North". The Russian North, with its dying masterpieces and patient inhabitants, is a land where
"it's so damn hard to live," according to one of the movie's characters.
The project was born out of love for cinema and first of interest, and then of praise and respect for Alexander Popov and his craft, — says Mitchell. — Then I was first introduced to the idea of the Russian North, which began to attract me like a magnet. It turned out that the external stimulus, look and energy of a foreigner, passionate about Russia, can inspire our compatriots on a common cause, set in motion the wings of a windmill.
The theme of Russia sort of crept up on me, — Mitchell laughs. When I was about eleven, I lived "in the middle of nowhere" in Texas. I was collecting shortwave radios because there was nothing else to do. And I caught the Moscow radio... In the program in English talked about quotas for tractors and other similar things. It was so strange that I just fell in love with this radio. Loved the weirdness. I certainly didn't have any political views, I didn't even know what communism was. But my father taught me to appreciate differences, to learn from those who are different from us.
When I was studying at the University in Texas, I chose several electives — it was the history of Russian cinema, Russian literature, a course on the history of Soviet society. It was all very interesting to me, but I was not Mature enough to fully understand and appreciate it all. Somehow, I became attracted to the exceptionally refined Russian culture that comes from literature. I understand the sophistication of this culture, perhaps the most intellectual. But at the same time, I see the intricacies of a different history and a different reality, which is forever pulling me in. This combination of seemingly disjointed elements attracts me, I get emotionally attached. Maybe I have emotional problems?
Since the film about Russia was intended for a foreign audience, Mitchell found it appropriate to introduce into his story another hero of the story of a foreigner. It, by chance, was the English architectural photographer Richard Davis.
I found it on the Internet - says Mitchell, and called him in London from Rostov-on‐don. Introduced himself, told what I do, and thanked for the book (he wrote a book about the wooden churches of the Russian North). I asked him to do my film. There was a pause, and then Richard said that two weeks later he comes to Rostov-on‐don with his photo exhibition. Everything was as if by itself. I offered to meet him with my camera as I wanted to film his entire trip and exhibition. After that, I filmed Richard every time he came to Russia. Thus, history itself loomed during this time. To the honor of our compatriots, I must say that in Russia there were not indifferent people who wanted to "saving North". Apart from Alexander Popov, our historians of architecture, teachers, local residents, as well as young people from missionary expeditions conducted by the movement "Common cause” joined the project. On Pro for seven years the project grew, and in the Russian North appeared the restored objects, such as a wonderful three-tiered wooden bell tower in Turchasovo (Onega district of the Arkhangelsk region). In the process of this creative work, friendship and mutual respect between people of different nationalities and cultures were born: they saved the objects of cultural heritage, and those, in turn, saved them.
The General attitude to what is happening was expressed by one of the Russians involved in the project, head of the Department of history of Russian art of St. Petersburg state University Yevgeny Khodakovsky: "People in themselves are not angry, not bad — they are only uneducated." By bringing new content into their lives, you give them a chance to show the best in themselves, to create beauty in the world around them instead of ugliness, solidarity instead of indifference.
Established such an accelerated pace of life that people do not have the opportunity to develop themselves, as did their ancestors-said Mitchell. I think we need to slow down and pay tribute to the artists and thinkers of the past. We can learn from them much of the wisdom we need today. The independent documentary Studio that Mitchell Johnson set up in the mid-1990s is called ABA-Media, which stands for always be analog, a kind of call to "stay not digital." Quite a bold motto in the era of universal digitalization! "Analog" - that is, a single, made by hand, not subject to cloning. Only this is the true culture that says something to our heart. — It's a celebration of antiperfectionism, savoring roughness, — Mitchell laughs. — You know, I don't really like the "world of numbers", when everything comes down to alternating zeros and ones. I'm much more interested in the analog world. And for me the word "analogue" is synonymous with "North". For me, the idea of love is embodied in a person who works with his hands, works with wood, this natural material that is not eternal. People like my heroes are trying to preserve the tree and turn it into works of art. I think it is very difficult not to fall in love with this world. In any case, it was difficult for me not to fall in love with him, because I am deeply convinced that modern civilization should go in this direction. Following the plot of the project Saving North, I’m thinking about what it is modern Western man for many months to exist in the Spartan conditions of our life, sharing a table and shelter with those who have long been accustomed to be content with little and nothing to complain. Fortunately, I did a lot of tourism, went Hiking with my son, participated in the boy scouts movement. These skills are really useful to me, although I quickly came to terms with some new living conditions, and what initially surprised, became habitual. Yes, I lived there — and was ready for anything. You know, I gradually came to the creation of films in which the main fight is a fight with amenities. The convenience of life is killing us. I now have three projects, the essence of each of which is in this. That's what I'm very interested in. I want to convey to the audience that we must be very careful not to lose the most important thing in the pursuit of convenience.
Mitchell Johnson was born and raised in Texas, in the American wilderness, little like the Russian North. "Originally it was assumed that
I will become a lawyer like my father, — he says. But suddenly I realized that I can do what I want myself. Almost by chance, I enrolled in a course on the history of cinema and in the first lesson the teacher said: "No one here is obliged to choose a profession of Director, it is too difficult. This is bad. It's interesting, of course, but you don't have to become Directors “. It was on this day that I decided for myself that I would make a movie. I was 19 years old then."
Johnson graduated from the Texas University with a degree in film and television, then entered the Institute of cinematography of southern California in Los Angeles, where he came out with a diploma in film Director. "After that, I went to Washington and worked there with the famous American documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. I learned a lot from him in two years. Then, many years later, I opened my own film company".
Mitchell Johnson is the winner of many professional awards, the winner of awards for his documentaries, including the prize of film festival in Santa Fe, the prize of the International Association of documentary filmmakers.
Currently lives and works in Russia, in Rostov‐on‐Don. For ideological reasons, goes by car UAZ–"Patriot".