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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: The crew

J. Mitchell Johnson self-made the film as a labor of love over a 8 year period with the help and support of various colleagues in the USA, Russia and the UK who assisted.


            About J. Mitchell Johnson -- After completing graduate film studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, J. Mitchell Johnson began his professional career in Washington, DC working for four-time academy-award winning director Charles Guggenheim as an assistant. After two years with Guggenheim, Johnson moved back to his native state of Texas and co-founded Fort Worth Productions, Inc.


            There he began working as an independent filmmaker focusing mostly on arts and cultural documentaries. His directorial debut was the 1977 Van Cliburn Piano Competition documentary for PBS prime-time, Contest to Carnegie Hall. This award-winning piece ushered subsequent arts and cultural documentaries for both PBS and The Arts Channel (now A&E) including USA (now Sundance) Festival-winner, Moses Pendleton Presents Moses Pendleton.


            In the second half of the 1980’s he founded J. Mitchell Johnson Productions, Inc.(JMJP), and put together a team of film-makers that produced videos from a production base in Budapest, Hungary in collaboraton with Eugene Fodor, the well-known founder of Fodor’s Travel Guides.


            In 1994 JMJP co-ventured with ABC News in New York a 22-part television series produced for the newly formed Russian TV network ORT. Soon after, with assistance from a group of partners, Johnson expanded JMJP’s activities by creating an independent media development partnership named Abamedia. During this period Johnson also produced a dramatic experimental feature film, World Without Waves, that won Santa Fe Film Festival’s Milagra Award and premiered at Moscow’s International Film Festival.


            In parallell, the Abamedia team and a group of archivists and computer scientists started an online catalog project of Russia’s pre-eminent documentary film archive at Krasnogorsk, Russia.  Five years later, Abamedia’s project evolved into (RAO) which features a database of 45,000 non-fiction films owned jointly between Abamedia and the Federal Archive Service of Russia.  From this effort sprung Abamedia’s year PBS Cold War television series, Red Files, which won the International Documentary Association’s “Best Limited Series” award in 2000.  


            In 2010, Abamedia established a base in Rostov-on-Don, Russia while simultaneously focusing on media projects in and around San Francisco based on increasing demand for US-Russia cultural exchange.  In addition to other initiatives, Abamedia kicked-off the “Fort Ross Media Project” in 2011. Fort Ross, a California state historical site located 90 miles north of San Francisco, is a major touch-point for US-Russia diplomacy efforts.


            The Russia-San Francisco media activities led step-by-step to Abamedia’s current media slate of production work including the feature documentary, Saving North (2020 release). Two other major Abamedia documentaries are also in production:  Remaining Human: Becoming Norbert Wiener and Coming Round: The Kashia Pomo’s Struggle for Homeland


            Johnson is the past-President of the Lone Star Film Festival and serves on the board of San Francisco’s TRACK TWO: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy where he also consults on and participates in media production efforts. Abamedia and Johnson also have also produced four short films for the Fort Ross Web site in support of citizen diplomacy efforts. The most recent of these, Common Ground, premiered in San Francisco in October 2019 at the annual Fort Ross Dialogue event that featured the former governor of California, Jerry Brown and Russia’s ambassador to the USA, Anatoly Antonov.


            ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY BY – Robert Elfstrom has earned a reputation for award-winning productions and cinematography.  His impressive library of work has appeared on prime time television and the silver screen, including: NOVA: The Race for the Superconductor (Emmy Award winner); American Masters: Finding Lucy (Emmy—Best Documentary); NBC Prime Time Specials: Bill Gates (Tom Brokaw Special); Discovery Channel: Cathedrals of the Sky (astronomical telescopes); HBO: Paul Rodriques Behind Bars (concert at San Quentin Prison); Feature Films: Gospel Road (with Johnny Cash), Hi Mom (directed by Brian DePalma, starring Robert DeNiro); Feature Documentaries: Gimme Shelter, The Running Fence, The Wrapped Islands (Maysles Films).


            Consulting Producer -- Dennis Bishop has won numerous awards for motion picture productions in various media, served as Vice President of Production at HBO Pictures, and managed several companies in different industries. He has worked off and on with Mr. Johnson since 1982. Dennis has chaired committees at the Directors Guild of America, Producers Guild of America and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He was a resource advisor for the Sundance Institute, served as Director and later Advisor of the Lone Star International Film Festival and Film Society, and was a co-founder of EarthxFilm Festival, which is part of Earthx, the largest environmental organization in the USA, if not the world. As an educator, he has served as an adjunct professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts, guest lectured, and mentored for the Producers Guild and Directors Guild. In 2009, Dennis created the curriculum for the Associates Degree Program in Motion Picture Production at KD Conservatory College of Film and Dramatic Arts where he served as Chair from 2009 to 2019. He is actively producing documentary films and consulting on feature films.


            Consulting Producer Jonathan Sanders, PhD is one of the West's leading experts on Russian film-based visual culture. He has written two books on the subject — 1917: The Unpublished Revolution (NY: Abbeville Press, 1989); and, with Hedi Hollinger, The Russians Emerge (NY: Abbeville Press, 2002. Sanders has worked extensively on television news programs, specials, and documentaries, including consulting on the website component of the award-winning Red Files series, produced by Abamedia for PBS. He spent a decade as a Moscow-based CBS news correspondent. He served as Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He is also a working still photographer: his pictures illustrate Richard Threlkeld's book, Dispatches From the Former Evil Empire. He is currently director of the project On the Russian Future, and a consultant on international broadcasting and media matters. An emmy-award winning filmmaker, Dr. Sanders is currently a professor of journalism at the Stonybrook University School of Journalism, State University of New York.

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