Wednesday, November 1 - Tuesday, November 7, 2023
James N. Kienitz Wilkins and John Aaron Frank's LEWISTON

LEWISTON, James N. Kienitz Wilkins and John Aaron Frank, 2002, 10 mins

Today, Lewiston, Maine is in the news for all the wrong reasons. I grew up there, the twin cities of Lewiston/Auburn. It’s my own L.A. I’ve made movies there since childhood. While I’ve lived in New York City all of my adult life, I maintain a relationship with the town. My family was under lockdown last week. Reading the news, I feel like I’m watching a movie I’ve seen before. Every location in the terrible saga is familiar: The Walmart distribution center. The pool hall. The bowling alley, crossing circuits in my memory with scenes from The Big Lebowski, which was in theaters back in the 90s around the last time I went bowling at Spare Time Recreation (what it was called then), a local fixture across the street from my mom’s favorite discount store, Marden’s (“I shoulda bought it when I saw it at Marden’s”). I bought my first rug for my first NYC apartment at Marden’s.

Reeling from the nearness and farness of the nightmare, I remembered I made a movie with John Aaron Frank called LEWISTON, taped one summer day in Kennedy Park in 2002, at the peak of the Somali refugee migration to Maine, and less than a year after the concept of “terrorists” became associated, in many American minds, with guys named Mohamed, despite being far more suited to losers with good Christian names, as we’ve been darkly reminded since. But this was under the surface to us at the time. We were local kids with biblical names sniffing out the scents of what simmered under surfaces. As Aaron puts it, “We saw parts of the city most don’t,” and I think that’s true. The movie arose out of our sparetime as teenagers with fresh driver’s licenses and cobbled-together camera gear, wandering around a tired and honestly pretty grim post-industrial mill community, reinforced with after-hours access to the darkroom at the Sun Journal (where Aaron’s dad was the visuals editor), and some half-formed education in the techniques of Robert Frank, Frederick Wiseman, Dogme 95, Italian neorealism, pre-Obama Shepard Fairey, plus whatever culture pushed its way through the creaky pipes of low-bandwidth dial-up internet, or was smuggled up the actual superhighway of I-95 from Boston and eventually New York, or mailed first class via United States Postal Service from a burgeoning Netflix in those classic matte red envelopes, as valuable and rare as cash sent from China. In 2002, Netflix was a year away from posting a profit, and YouTube wasn’t a thing yet, although eBay had served me well (cheap gear), and Final Cut Pro had just hit the market. Somehow we negotiated access to a Canon XL1 3-CCD MiniDV camera and shotgun mic from the local public access station, in exchange for taping the high school graduation we didn’t participate in.

Looking back, we were probably weirdos. The thing I’ve come to appreciate about Lewiston (and Maine, in general) is that Mainers are pretty harmless weirdos, which makes the assault that much more shocking. Like even when the dark side exists, the typical Mainer prefers to keep it to themselves. Maybe chalk it up to a high value placed on privacy and a Thoreau-like inner life. At least usually. A few years after we made LEWISTON, a white guy bowled a frozen pig head into a Somali mosque on Lisbon Street as some sort of prank. Later, he committed suicide with a semiautomatic in the parking lot of Marden’s during a standoff with police. His MySpace page was littered with memes and creepy jokes—“Happiness is a warm AK-47,” “Welcome to America, now either speak English or leave.” These guys have always been lurking. And so have their machine guns.

Today, all I can say is that who and what we encountered on that summer day in LEWISTON is distinctly not what everyone’s dealing with now. It’s a small movie made by overgrown kids with the privilege to explore, and tape some other kids, all with their lives ahead of them, twenty years ago, poorly preserved, and it is what it is. I don’t love Lewiston, but I’m fond of it. I’m talking about the town and the movie. At the end of the day, it’s just a place where people are trying to do their thing, trying to live their lives. My thing is making movies and I have this one to share.

James N. Kienitz Wilkins
October, 2023