Local Mini-Documentaries Are Attracting a Global Audience

Featured Audio

Tom Tomes raises his shotgun, aims it straight at you, and fires.

SOUND: gunshots

Tomes is part of a group of men in rural Lorain County who dress-up in cowboy outfits and have target-shooting competitions. Their story has been captured in a four-and-a-half-minute documentary.

FILM CLIP: “I was born here in Ohio, got a little farm, bale a little hay, got some horses to feed, cattle; pigs, at times. It all keeps me busy. Did I have any dreams? I always dreamed of getting a rodeo or something. But, as you get older, that ain’t gonna happen.”

This brief biography, called "Cowboy Action," is just one in a series of short portraits of Northeast Ohioans, each one shot on a shoe-string budget – but with very high production values. Producer Jeff Pence says he and director Mika Johnson first met Tomes, a few years ago, while shooting test footage for a feature film.

JEFF PENCE: We needed some people to ride horses and shoot guns, for the test footage. He has horses and guns --- and other friends with horses and guns --- and they did that for us.

But, the plans for their full-length movie got put on the back burner when the economy tanked in 2008, so the Oberlin-based filmmakers decided to scale back their ambitions a bit, and shoot mini-features about some of the local people who had helped with the production. Mika Johnson says their first subject was Tom Tomes.

MIKA JOHNSON: What he told me in the beginning, when I asked if we could make a film together, was, “I don’t know what it’s going to be about, because there’s nothing interesting about me.”

Johnson and Pence convinced him otherwise, and they were off on a project that has yielded 15 short films, so far. They call this series, “The Amerikans” --- with a “k”. It’s a reference to their delayed feature project, called “Amerika” which is, in turn, based on an unpublished novel by Franz Kafka about the experiences of immigrants trying to find a sense of place in the U.S. Pence says their films take pride in celebrating the lives of ordinary people, whose stories are seldom told.

JEFF PENCE: Often, when you say you’re telling local stories, people assume that what’s going to come in is a kind of sentimental boosterism, and I don’t think that our films are that. We try to be real; we don’t try to layer over some kind of sweetness.

And these Amerikan stories are developing an international audience via the internet. The filmmakers claim they’ve had thousands of views in 130 countries, including China.

YINYU ZHAN: I felt like they present authentic and real stories about American people’s lives. They tell stories that I never heard of.

Oberlin student Yinyu Zhan and her friend Lang Xu have been helping the filmmakers by uploading some of the Amerikans films onto the Chinese video-sharing site, Youku. Xu says an episode about a Wellington bee sting therapist was widely seen.

LANG XU: Our most popular video right now is “Love and Venom”, and that was the video that got 50,000 hits in 24 hours.

Another fan favorite is Walter Frey, Jr., who runs a Lorain funeral parlor. His five-minute film explores ideas about life and death, as well as his collection of over a thousand ties.

WALTER FREY: People tease me about being famous. I don’t consider myself famous. I’m just a regular, ordinary type of person. From what Mika told me, apparently 40,000 people have viewed it on the website.

Jeff Pence and Mika Johnson compare their films to a regionally crafted microbrew. And Johnson suggests that this focus on local stories, also gives a sense of a bigger picture.

MIKA JOHNSON: It’s this idea that there are all of these competing ideas about America --- what it is, who the people are. This is our version.

And apparently, the rest of the world wants to know more. The filmmakers recently signed an exclusive contract with Youku for all future releases in China.

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