Ebullient, quirky, passionate. These are just a few adjectives Obies use to describe themselves. They’re also adjectives one might use to describe Mark McKinley, professor of psychology at Lorain County Community College (LCCC), a school just a short drive north of Oberlin.
McKinley, who has taught at LCCC for nearly 50 years, is the subject of Forever Professor, a 30-minute documentary premiering at the 39th Cleveland International Film Festival. The documentary is directed by Mika Johnson ’00, the filmmaker behind The Amerikans, a series of 15 three- to five-minute documentaries created to inspire viewers to re-imagine Ohio, his home state.
It was during his time filming The Amerikans that Johnson learned McKinely—a man he knew as suave, handsome, and captivating—had become notorious for his collection of talking clocks. “Clocks filled every corner of his house; once an hour, all conversation stopped as the disembodied voices of cartoon characters, butlers, children, housewives, and Hollywood villains announced the time,” Johnson wrote in a director’s statement. “That was where the adventure began.”
It was an adventure Johnson wouldn’t take alone. To make Forever Professor, he enlisted the help of current students, fellow alums, and others with ties to Oberlin College, including:
- Zach Christy, animations
- Patrick Gilfether ’15, interview camera
- Benjamin Lemberger ’14, graphics
- Nicole Levesque ’14, narrator
- Jocienne Nelson ’14, graphics
- Kirk Pearson ’17, composer
- Eli Stine ’14, sound designer
- Woody Tucker ’16, cinematographer
- Leah Wood ’16, sound
Cinema studies major Patrick Gilfether, originally from Oberlin, became involved in the production of Forever Professor after meeting Johnson for the first time at a local restaurant. “My friend [Leah Wood] knew Mika and had mentioned him to me. I ran into him at the Feve and said, ‘You make movies, I want to learn how to do that better,’” Patrick says. “He said, ‘I’m sure I can use you for something,’ and then he called me the next day and asked if I wanted to go on a location scout. I did another one of those, and then a week later, he had me setting up cameras.”
On days they were filming interviews, Gilfether and Johnson were joined by Leah Wood. “Mika would tell me to do camera, Leah to do sound, and then he would work with the subject. He entirely trusted us with those things. It made me feel skilled,” he says. “I think the best way to learn to make movies is to just do it. Sure, you have to have some theoretical grounding, but you’re going to learn a lot more from going out and making some mistakes.”
When he wasn’t working with interview subjects, Gilfether says Johnson taught him technical skills he now applies to video work he does for the Bonner Center for Service and Learning and the Office of Communications. “Mika taught me how to do a multi-camera interview shoot where you set up multiple angles so you can cut within the scene instead of cutting away from a scene,” he says.
Even better, Gilfether says, was Johnson’s willingness to answer his questions about what it’s like to work as a professional documentary cinematographer—Gilfether’s career ambition—and more. “When we were driving, and it was just me and him in his car, I could talk his ear off,” he says. “I could ask him questions about ideas I was developing, and he would say, ‘You should watch this movie,’ or ‘You should think about this idea,’ or ‘Have you read this?’ That was really cool.”
Whereas Gilfether was involved in the filming of Forever Professor, the work Kirk Pearson did for the documentary was completed after shooting had wrapped. A double-degree student from Brooklyn, New York, studying music composition and geology, Pearson wrote, performed, and produced the film’s score.
“It’s an interesting score. A lot of the instruments I used would remind you of childhood or would give you this sense of inauthenticity. Mark is a personal guy, but he’s fallen in love with this synthetic human construct; these ridiculously hokey talking clocks. That’s why I created the score as I did,” Pearson says. “I really got to experiment with Mika. He gave me total creative control.”
Pearson says he became involved in the project after he was introduced to Johnson via e-mail. “Mika was in town, so we met for what was going to be a 30-minute meeting. Two hours later, we were still talking,” Pearson says. “In mid-July, he shot me an e-mail asking if I’d like to take part in the piece. I had never seen Mika’s work when I accepted, so he had me watch The Amerikans. It was obvious we admired the same things about cinema culture.”
Unlike Gilfether, Pearson did not work on Forever Professor with Johnson in person. That’s because Pearson’s summer was spent working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By the time he returned to Oberlin, Johnson was in Prague, Czech Republic, working as an instructor at the Prague Film School. But Pearson says the pair communicated openly and regularly through e-mail.
It was through e-mail that Johnson alerted Pearson, Gilfether, and the others involved that Forever Professor had been accepted into the Cleveland International Film Festival.
“I was happy and unsurprised [when I found out]. I think it’s a great film,” Pearson says. “If I could continue to work on films like Forever Professor for the next 10 years of my life, I’d be pretty happy. This is the kind of project that I was happy to get but is not rare for Oberlin students. The academics at Oberlin are incredible and rigorous, but most of what you learn happens outside the classroom.”
“I’m interested to see where the film will go from here,” Gilfether says. “If he gets it into a European film festival where people from networks are looking to buy TV content, he could probably sell it like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.
For now, Forever Professor can be seen at the Cleveland International Film Festival at 8:50 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at Tower City Cinemas in Cleveland. Tickets can be purchased online for $15.
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