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By Admin | November 3, 2011

It occurred to me recently that A Year Without Rent was missing an opportunity by not letting the filmmakers we profile speak for themselves. So, we’re in the process of reaching out to our alumni and giving them a chance to talk about their productions, un-edited. Think of it as a point/counter-point, if you want.

by Dawn Mikkelson


When I first learned that Lucas and A Year Without Rent was coming on set of “SMOOCH”, I was in complete shock. As a proud backer of A Year Without Rent, I loved the idea, but had no clue how to get Lucas on set, based on the nature of documentary film. Generally we have very closed sets, given the intimacy we need in order to make average people feel comfortable with our camera. But this film was different.

This was the first public shoot I’d ever done for a film and it was an experiment. We were beginning what has turned into a global series of Public Forgiveness Shoots (we intend on holding these on all 5 continents . . . interested in hosting one???), which ask random people off the street to share their stories and perspectives on forgiveness. Would people even talk with us? We hadn’t scheduled individual interviews, so these were patrons of an Art Crawl, expecting to just view art and maybe buy a necklace. Would Lucas leave with a story of us failing miserably in our attempt to collect forgiveness stories from complete strangers? Sometimes you have to take the risk.

And then there was the situation of living arrangements. Sure, you can stay at my house . . . presuming you’re okay with sleeping on the world’s oldest couch, encrusted in dust and pet hair, and using the basement shower because our bathroom is currently out of commission. Glamorous. Luckily his low-key demeanor and apparent lack of pretension prevented me from completely imploding.

The next morning we were up early and loading into the basement storage unit of a St. Paul apartment building. We really know how to pick locations!

I have to again explain, I have NEVER had anyone on set before who wasn’t a part of a 1-3 person crew for my films. Having the low-tech nature of our work revealed to the film world was a bit intimidating. So why did I say yes to having Lucas on set? I share his belief that film happens wherever you are and that you can make great work in Minnesota or Wyoming or Kansas . . . It’s about the power of the story. I also thought that documentary filmmakers needed some representing in A Year Without Rent coverage. We’re the nerds of the film world and it’s rare we get included in cool stuff.

Okay, back to the story. So his blog post of the day is pretty accurate. It’s a challenge to talk people into following you into a scary storage unit to share their deep dark stuff on camera with complete strangers who will then edit your words and broadcast it around the world online and in a film. Just writing this I think, “why the heck would anyone do that?” But they did and as we learned that day and continue to learn at every public shoot we’ve had since, the stories can blow your mind. I am past the point of counting the number of times I’ve hear someone say that they haven’t shared this story with ANYONE until today. But there’s something about documentary that can serve as validation that your story matters. Someone is interested in your story, your opinion, your emotions. That is what happened when Lucas and A Year Without Rent visited our set.

Highlights of that day can be seen on the Official SMOOCH YouTube Channel and more specifically in this video:

The story that Lucas blogs about by saying, “ You could feel the film exploding all around the room” is the woman who talks about the unforgivable and saying that forgiveness feels like she’s “giving up my right to scream at you and say ‘NO’”.

We have released a handful of stories on our YouTube Channel that have come out at subsequent public shoots, but not hers. The details of her story are currently only known to myself, Lucas and my two interns, Heidi and Monte. Why? Lucas was right, the room did explode. We also wanted to give her the time to consider what she had shared with us and the possibility of reconsidering her participation. (To date, she has not asked us to withhold this footage, but we wanted to give her a bit of time before we went live with it.) The story was that powerful. Ultimately, it will likely end up in the final cut of SMOOCH, rather than our YouTube Channel as one of many stories that illuminates the challenge of forgiveness and complexity of pain.

I’m thrilled that Lucas and A Year Without Rent was there to document that moment. Although it was unexpected, it was not a surprise for anyone who makes documentary film. What I am continually reminded of is what we saw that day, that we all have stories to tell and sometimes it just takes a random person in a storage unit to ask the right question and that story emerges.

On a side note, Lucas was a perfect houseguest and never once mentioned the shabby couch or scary basement shower. Cause he’s a professional.

Dawn Mikkelson has directed a number of feature-length documentaries, including GREEN GREEN WATER, which you may have seen on PBS. She lives in St. Paul and her couch isn’t as bad as she’d have you believe.

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