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Saving North

Saving North is the story of a struggle for human and cultural survival in the mysterious and insular world of the Russian North. An outsider from England, photographer Richard Davies, enters this mysterious and vast region of the world with the hope of documenting both the glory and the tragic demise of its rapidly disappearing Wooden Churches. As Davies meets and becomes friends with the some of his Russian photo subjects, he finds himself getting emotionally involved with their struggle. He decides to put down his camera and get involved with church restoration.

            Early on in our story Davies befriends the famed Russian architect Alexander Popov who is deeply involved in working to preserve and share with the world the beauty and value of these ancient structures. Popov has uniquely discovered and reinvigorated both the tools and processes that restore life back to the North. But it’s an uphill battle against strong and powerful forces.

            Together, Davies and Popov uncover the circumstances that led to the demise of the churches, and then join a small but growing group of passionate Russian citizens and outsiders from all walks of life who join the cause of Saving North.


Saving North : J. Mitchell Johnson Director's statement

I am an American filmmaker who has been living and working between the US and Russia for more than 25 years. Over this period I have made movies and created media projects about Russia. In 2009 I married my wife who is a Russian citizen, and prefers living in her homeland. That’s why I began to spend significantly more time in Russia than elsewhere.


            Living in Russia has given me the opportunity to begin exploring its hinterlands, and allowed me to independently begin shooting documentary footage about subjects that interest me while also spending time back in the USA. As part of my East-West filmmaking passion, in 2011 I met the California people who are behind the American non-profit group, the Fort Ross Conservancy, Inc. (FRC). 


            FRC exists, among other reasons, to promote for the benefit of the public the interpretive and educational activities of Fort Ross State Historic Park. Fort Ross, founded in 1812, was a Russian outpost before California became part of the USA. Fort Ross today has also become a platform for US-Russia citizen diplomacy, and FRC promotes projects that celebrates the US-Russia relationship, past and present.


            The year 2012 marked the 200th anniversary of the founding of Fort Ross, and a donor made it possible for the well-known Russian wooden architect and builder, Alexander Popov, to create a wooden windmill like the one that used to exist at Fort Ross during the early 19th century.  The plan was for Popov to build the windmill at his building compound in the northern Russia two of Kirilov, and then break it down and ship it to Fort Ross in time for a series of events marking the bicentennial celebration.


            The people of Fort Ross connected me with the folks behind the windmill project in Russia, and I traveled to Popov’s compound in Kirilov, Russia and began filming in May 2012. Through the process over the months of filming with Popov first in Russia and then in America (with the help of my filmmaking partner Bob Elfstrom and team), I became fascinated with Popov as a kind of person one rarely meets. I also discovered that he had restored some beautiful and ancient wooden churches in the Russian “North” that I had come to greatly admire.


            After the windmill project was successfully realized and documented, I was back in Rostov-on-Don in February 2013 thinking about next steps for this film material I had on hand. It was on a cold winter’s day when I stumbled upon the Web site of the London-based architectural photographer Richard Davies and his story of writing a book entitled, The Wooden Churches of Russia. Suddenly I decided to simply call and try to introduce myself to Mr. Davies at a London phone number I had found as part of my research.


            Mr. Davies answered the phone. I introduced myself as an American filmmaker interested in Russian wooden architecture. A bit distant at first, Mr. Davies warmed-up as I told him the story about my past filming with the legendary Alexander Popov. It turned out that Davies had met and worked photographed with Popov on more than one occasion.


            Towards the end of this telephone chat Davies revealed that he would be mounting an exhibit of his photographs in a city called Rostov-on-Don the very next month. I was very surprised about this news, and when I told him that in fact I was now calling him from Rostov-on-Don, we both simultaneously understood that we were about to meet in the Russian “South,” of all places.


            A long story short, Mr. Davies agreed to allow me to film the mounting of his exhibition in a small museum in Rostov-on-Don’s Armenian quarter as Richard Davies prepared his photo exhibition about the Wooden Churches of Northern Russia. I didn’t know at that time that my meeting with Davies would be, for lack of a better word, transformative on various levels.


            During the period 2013 through 2017 I would film with Davies many times as he visited different places in the Russian North, and in and around his studio in London on three different occasions. Over the course of this filming another unexpected part of the story evolves from the fact that Richard gets emotionally involved with his subject, and decides to put aside his camera long enough to help bring together financial support for the actual restoration of a bell tower in the Russian village of Turchasevo.


            Thus, Saving North becomes now a story of personal and material transformation that occur in various dimensions and time-zones to people and non-human objects alike, both in front and behind the camera. Conceived during exploratory filming expeditions both in the northern territories of Russia and the state of California, Saving North was born with the help that “coincidence” often provides when life’s purpose meets opportunity. Eight years after initial photography began, the film now matures into it’s own substance and identity after many twists, turns, and flows of support from people who I will always remember and appreciate.


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