Sinking back in his rocker-recliner and sipping on coffee from his hunter-green mug, Professor Michael Loukinen seems to be the epitome of the carefree, laidback teacher who greatly enjoys his work. But as he reflects on a film career that’s spanned nearly three decades, his start in filmmaking wasn’t as easy going as he lets on.
For the past 31 years, Loukinen has worked as a sociology professor at NMU. He’s managed to balance the stresses of teaching classes with being able to make award-winning documentaries, a feat unto itself. But it was in the classroom where he began to develop a passion for making films. It all started as a teaching aide.
“It was an attempt to keep my students awake,” Loukinen said.
Loukinen found that when he began using exact quotes from sources he was lecturing on in classes, students took more of an interest. He then began using audio clips before moving onto 35 mm slide shows. He eventually settled on 16 mm film and has since been making his own films.
When he first started working with film, Loukinen knew the best way to learn was to work with professionals and experience filmmaking firsthand. He said that out of all the people he worked with, the one who stuck with him was a Czech editor named Miroslav Janek. It was through him that Loukinen learned the many techniques which have become signature in his films.
“He taught me about pacing,” Loukinen said. “He taught me about montage.”
Loukinen’s first film, 1982’s “Finnish American Lives,” took a look at three generations of Finnish Americans living on a small family farm. For Loukinen, “Lives” holds a special place in his heart. After making the film, he was able to go over to Finland to premiere it and visit distant relatives. It was then that he discovered the inspiration that led him to make his most recent “Ojibwe” series of films.
“On a scorching hot August day, I was greeted by a cousin … She was welcoming her American cousin to his Finnish roots. She showed me an old black and white picture of my great grandmother . a black-haired woman who looked like she could have been Black Elk’s (an American Indian chief) sister.”
Although Loukinen knew that his father knew nothing of their heritage, he began noticing similarities between his father’s beliefs and those of his relatives in Finland.
“Even though he had been a devout Apostolic Lutheran, he had indigenous ways,” he said. “In the woods is where he talked religion. He was a Lutheran but he was also something else that he never explicitly acknowledged.”
This path led Loukinen to make films about Native Americans. But before digital film became commonplace, working with analog film was expensive and time consuming. He had difficulties finding money to fly people into Marquette, pay for their lodging and compensate them for their work. After a while, he began to travel, flying to New York and other cities over weekends to get his editing taken care of in professional studios. But with the unpredictable U.P. weather causing flight delays and the exhaustion of travel wearing him down, Loukinen felt that he would, unfortunately, have to give up film.
But in the summer of 1997, he met NMU graduate Grant Guston. Guston was working with computers and filming digitally, something Loukinen didn’t know how to do. The two realized they could learn a great deal from each other.
“He has taught me so much,” Loukinen said. “We really complement each other.
“I’ve had the ability to work with the best graphic artist in the U.P. Grant’s a rocket scientist when it comes to digital media.”
When universities switched over to digital, Guston worked as an integrator — someone who helps implement the new technology into a campus. This caught the eye of Loukinen, and the two agreed to start working together.
“Initially, he was looking for someone to make the transition from 16 mm to digital film,” Guston said, adding that he was a likely candidate to help make that transition.
“I was the computerized editing guinea pig for the film and video production program here at Northern,” he said.
Guston added that working with Loukinen has really opened him up to a large group of cultures, which has enhanced his life.
“I’ve developed a social conscious,” he said. Guston added that he’s still learning a lot of important lessons about making films.
“What I’m still learning from him is that he has no fear towards a subject he’s passionate about. You need that in filmmaking. It just takes a tremendous will,” Guston said.
Loukinen has also recently started working with assistant sociology professor Kristen Carroll. Carroll said the two plan on making environmental-focused films. One proposed project looks at the role that rivers and other bodies of water play in various cultures.
“I am currently collaborating with Professor Loukinen and outstanding sociology senior of the year, Daniel Hall, on a film about the sacredness of water in many cultural traditions throughout the world,” Carroll said.
She added that, regarding the release of Loukinen’s latest film, “Ojibwe Drum Songs,” she was glad to see so many people attend the premiere.
Loukinen said working with Guston and Carroll, who offer their own unique viewpoints, has helped him continue to make films.
“Just the prospect of working with Guston and Carroll keeps me going and will probably make me stay in the filmmaking business,” he said.
Loukinen has two films currently in the works — one of which, “Ojibwe Birch Bark Wigwam,” has already been completed and will premiere sometime in the fall of 2008. The other is a documentary that looks at the myths surrounding alcohol-related spousal abuse.
Although he said that he is done with the Ojibwe film series, he said he would like to go back and revisit his Finnish roots.
“My film journey over the last three decades, in retrospect, seems to have been a way to find in my outside world that which might always have been buried deep inside.”
To learn more about Loukinen and his films, visit his Web site at www.upnorthfilms.org.