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Johnson '15 makes award-winning film about mesothelioma

Barry McNamara
10/04/2019
Zack Johnson (left) and his cousin, Conor Lewis
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Sitting in the back of venues as his documentary Dirty Laundry is screened, Zack Johnson is able to gauge audiences’ reaction to the film that he made with his cousin, Conor Lewis.

The documentary tells the story of people across the country who lost loved ones to mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer.

But it was when Johnson went to the front of the house to answer questions at one screening that he got perhaps the most important feedback of all.

“We were at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase,” said Johnson, a 2015 Monmouth graduate who lives across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in Alton, Ill. “One of the people we interviewed in the film was Julie Gundlach. She was a big part of our story. The St. Louis screening was her first time seeing the film. During the Q&A portion, I looked down into the audience and saw Julie. She was bawling her eyes out. In the film, we’re talking about people’s lives, and it’s a very serious thing. To see her be so moved was the most important feedback ever to me. She was extremely happy with how it turned out.”

Johnson visited campus in September to screen the documentary and share his story with students. He said it was during the editing process that he had a feeling the documentary might be a success.

“It’s tough to be objective when you’re working with the footage every day,” said Johnson, who was the film’s assistant director and sound mixer, as well as one of the camera operators. “You’ve kind of got to remove yourself from the process. But during editing I remember saying, ‘Guys, I think this is freaking good.’”

Dirty laundry

Johnson and Lewis’s grandmother died of mesothelioma, which Johnson said she got from doing laundry, shaking out the dust from her husband’s coveralls after his days spent as a pipe insulator working with asbestos.

“She died in 2012,” said Johnson, who was in the fall semester of his sophomore year at Monmouth at the time. “It was only three months from her diagnosis to passing.”

The loss hit Johnson and his cousin hard. What moved their documentary project forward was a combination of that grief, plus Lewis’s passion for cycling and the cousins’ constant search for new and different ideas.

“We were just spitballing ideas over coffee one day, and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy if we tied cycling into meso?’” said Johnson. “There was a brief moment of silence, then we said ‘Wait, that could be something.’”

The Lewis and Zack trail

That something turned into a 4,200-mile, 78-day quest, using several established bike trails along the way, including the Transamerica Bike Trail, which starts in Astoria, Ore., the location from which Johnson and Lewis started riding.

“We were within 30 miles of Canada at one point,” said Johnson. “The whole route seemed slightly uphill.”

The biking might have been a struggle at times, but the relationships they forged along the way were well worth the effort.

“So many people opened up their homes to us, cooked for us, welcomed us as family with open arms.”

Typically, Johnson and Lewis would share a meal at a home and relax in the evening, getting to know their interview subject. The next morning, they’d film an interview about the family member who’d been lost to mesothelioma.

One of the sessions that moved Johnson the most was with Latanyata Manuel.

“She loved her husband SO much,” said Johnson. “I don’t even know how to articulate how much she loved him. And he was taken away by a completely man-made disease. You could almost feel the pain she was experiencing. It hurt my heart.”

The documentary goes beyond having an impact on those who’ve lost loved ones to mesothelioma. It has been screened at 11 festivals and received two awards, earning the Cultural Spirit Award at the New Hope Film Festival in Pennsylvania and the Alan Reinstein Award from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization for commitment to education, advocacy, and providing support to countless patients and families.

A communication studies and exercise science major at Monmouth, Johnson has put his liberal arts education to work in several areas, including community development, personal training, drone piloting and training hunting dogs. His next project will marry his success with video production and his love of the outdoors. He will write, direct and produce the educational piece, potentially starring in it, as well.

Chris Goble’s media production class was very helpful to me, learning all the Adobe products and software,” said Johnson, who came to Monmouth from Wood River, Ill., as a football recruit in the fall of 2011. “I’ve also used what I learned in my ‘Persuasion’ class quite a bit. But as I look back, I realize that I usually paid just enough attention to get me by. So that’s one thing I’ve been telling the students – to take advantage of their opportunities at Monmouth. I could’ve developed my skills a lot more than I did.”

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“Dirty Laundry” is available for rent and download on Vimeo On Demand. Eventually, Johnson believes it will be available on Amazon Prime or a similar platform. From the director’s statement, written by Lewis: “Two young cousins search for answers to understand their family history in relation to a much bigger problem: Why is asbestos still legal when it is still killing people?”