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Remembering Fred Johnson and His Only Film

Peter Goodman


 I’d like to see Fred Johnson’s only movie again.

Forty years ago I was a filmmaker here. I edited film in my friend Bud’s [Professor Orville Joseph Wanzer, Jr.’s] office in Milton Hall, at NMSU.Bud taught filmmaking and film appreciation.

University filmmaking courses were new, and at better-known schools students didn’t touch the cameras for years. But Bud had figured out that military surplus cameras were available free to New Mexico schools and universities. Our used 16mm Bolexes and Auricons weren’t state-of-the-art, but we loved ‘em; and Bud could not only discuss the meaning of Ingmar Bergman’s or Federico Fellini’s films, he could fix cameras. His students immediately got to check out cameras, shoot film, have Bud process it, and then edit it.

Fred Johnson wasn’t a film student. Fred Johnson was an idealistic young Dineh man on his way through NMSU on the way to being a lawyer. He lived in married student housing with his wife and at least one child.

If Fred told me just why he took such an offbeat academic byway as Bud’s filmmaking course, I forgot long ago. Bud’s courses were simple: you made a 10-minute film, we watched it, and Bud gave you a grade. No tests, no term papers, no nonsense.

I was often at work on editing. Digression for younger folks: just as there weren’t always telephones or motorcars, video used to not exist. There was no digital editing, no Final Cut Pro, baffling ‘til you learn it, then wonderfully quick and easy. You literally cut movie film into strips, hung the strips on hooks in special bins that had soft cloth to keep the hanging film from getting scratched. Then, with actual glue, you spliced it together in the desired order. And refined it as necessary.

Fred shot a film; but on the last week of the semester, he had no clue how to edit it. So one long night, or maybe parts of two nights when we were both in the editing rooms, I taught him how to edit, then answered occasion questions.

When Fred showed his film, it was damned good for a student film; and it’s one I wish I could show some folks even now. His film was a day in the life of his daughter, who was in grade school. It showed her at home, listening to Navajo music, eating with her family, then on the school bus, surrounded by shouting kids and loud radios, then in school, then at home again. It showed, without any political or philosophical commentary, how jarringly different portions of her day were from each other. How foreign the school environment was for her. It stuck in my mind.

Fred became a lawyer, and a Navajo Tribal Council member. When protesters occupied a place on the reservation, Fred was one of the few outsiders they trusted. He flew in and out, negotiating. One flight crashed, killing him. It was a sad end to someone who might have done much good for the Navajo Nation. Good guy, too.

Recently,in connection with a documentary about Bud, folks found Fred’s film, and other student films from that era. It’s been copied onto video. But without Fred’s permission – or, now, his family’s – it can’t be shown.

I want to see it again. I want to make sure Fred’s family has a copy. If anyone reading this can help us reach them, please do. Thanks!