“I consider myself a messenger for the Midwest,” says Andrew Cohn, with a hearty laugh after becoming a regular at film festivals around the world while always returning to the region he was born to make movies with people every bit as worthy of the big screen as their attention-grabbing coastal counterparts.
“I feel that part of the country is so misunderstood and that people look at the Midwest a lot of times through the lens of politics more so than they do other places,” says Cohn, whose previous films “Medora” (with Davy Rothbart) and “Night School” have been studies of people have pushed themselves beyond what society has seemingly set out for them with considerable dignity. “So it brings me a lot of joy and satisfaction to be able to share the earnestness of the people in the Midwest, and the straightforwardness and the honesty — the things that I hold dear and the values that I really care about. That’s what my work has been grounded in since I started.”
With his latest film, the short “Destination Park,” Cohn takes audiences into a place that even Midwesterners might not even know is in their community with a trip to a Transport for Christ mobile chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Tucked inside a truck stop, long-haul drivers on break from their routes come to refuel not only their rigs, but themselves spiritually, finding a rare person on an often lonely road to confide in with a chaplain on hand to talk through their troubles. These connections are fleeting since the truckers are always on the move, but in capturing these confessional moments, Cohn shows the impression made by the mere act of listening as well as making one on audiences who will likely never forget any of the people who appear in the film as they pour out their souls for the benefit of strangers.
Shortly before “Destination Park” makes its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend, Cohn spoke about he gains the trust of his subjects as well as how he came across such a unique situation to build a film around.
How did this come about?
When I was making “Night School,” I was actually teaching at Purdue University and a couple days a week, I would drive up from Indianapolis to West Lafayette, past this mobile chapel. I was really interested [because I thought], “That’s weird, a church in back of a truck.” One day I finally got the gumption to go in and talk to the chaplain and he told me there were a couple dozen of these mobile chapels scattered throughout the country. The one outside Indianapolis was pretty slow. It didn’t get a lot of traffic, so he put me onto this mobile chapel in Grand Rapids that was at a much larger truck stop. It was called a “destination truck stop,” which is where people park and sometimes live for days, or weeks, or months while they’re waiting to pick up a load or just don’t have a place to live at the time. He was saying this particular chapel, you’d get a lot more foot traffic with people coming in, talking about their fears and their dreams and their hopes, so I just drove up there one day and asked them if I could film for a weekend, and the rest came to be.
I understand the 2016 presidential election was still fresh in your mind while making this. Did it influence it in any way?
Yeah, I had an inclination that the majority of these folks would be Trump voters, or a more conservative part of America that doesn’t always have a fair light shined on them, and in all my films, I’m not really trying to go in with a particular agenda or a point of view, but once we got there, a lot of the things that I had thought might be the case were the case. The things they were talking about were things that rang true to a large segment of that population, just a lot of frustration and economic anxiety and also a lot of attitudes about change and fear of change. So as I started to whittle it down in the edit, I really wanted to pull the politics out of it and focus on what are the hardships that are driving these folks to feel the way they do. However I might disagree, I felt that it was important to give these folks a platform to air their grievances and I was surprised by the frankness in which these people spoke and their willingness to trust someone that they may label [derisively] as the media, and to film these extremely vulnerable moments.
You usually have a longer runway to establish that trust when you’re working on a feature. What was it like to get that access on a short?
I really wanted to be a fly on the wall between the chaplains and the truckers, so I tried to remove myself even during those moments where I wasn’t standing over the camera watching and directing. Even our camera guy, I was very clear to him that I wanted him to disappear, and our sound people, we all left so they could have as much privacy as possible. I wanted for it to feel as organic and natural as possible as if the cameras weren’t there, so I went out of my way to try and do that to get that type of intimacy they would normally have with a chaplain and to feel as at ease as they normally would.
Is the first step getting the trust of Transport for Christ’s lead chaplain Chad Rodema?
Yeah, and it helps when you have a previous body of work. I remember when I first visited, I left [Chad] with a DVD and he wrote me a little nice e-mail, maybe it was a text, to say how much he loved “Medora.” That goes a long way, when you can hang your hat on your previous work and say it’s going to feel like this or it’s going to be from the same place as this, so letting them see some of my previous work probably put them at ease and I did have to have a little conversation with the national headquarters of [Transport for Christ], but they were very understanding. I think most people, if you approach them in a genuine and authentic way, want to share their story, so I was just fortunate enough to be there when folks were ready.
You also employ local crews rather than bringing in ringers from the coasts. Does that facilitate those relationships?
I don’t think it can hurt. There’s lots of small talk and conversation that goes on that I think is part of the process in building trust, so when a trucker says, “Where are you from?” expecting you to say Los Angeles or New York and you say, “I’m from Fort Wayne originally” or “I grew up in Indianapolis,” they think, “Okay, I know a lot of people in Indianapolis. You seem like a solid guy.” People in that part of the country definitely have, for right or wrong, certain preconceptions about what a film crew is, so [it’s good] to be able to knock some of those preconceptions out of the way. I’m from Michigan – I told them I was from Ann Arbor, so we watched a lot of Tigers’ games and talked a lot of Michigan football. That goes a long way.
What’s it like getting to the finish line with this and going to Tribeca?
I filmed this over a year ago and I got really busy with other projects, so our editor [Sam Mirpoorian] really took the bull by the horns for this one and I’m really grateful for Sam and the work he’s been able to do. Sam’s a great up-and-coming filmmaker in Indianapolis and we always wanted to work together, so I had mentioned [to him] when I was at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis that me and Brenton [Oechsle, the cinematographer] shot this film and it’s just sitting on a bunch of hard drives and I didn’t really know what to do with it. He said, “I’d love to work on it” and I gave him a hard drive and went down this path with him. I’ve been lucky enough to have films that have been successful and I think for Brenton and Sam, they’re a little bit younger, so it was a jolt of youth and I try as much as I can to pass on as much knowledge as I can. I’m happy with the way it turned out.
“Destination Park” will play at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the shorts program “Home Sweet Home” on April 21st at 6:30 pm, April 24th at 5:30 pm and April 25th at 5 pm at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park and April 28th at 3:45 pm at Cinepolis Chelsea.