by Kathlene McGovern

What do you do when the soul/rock band you started with your dad isn’t really going anywhere? Rewrite a few songs? Get your guitar restrung? Hop on a plane to a war zone? If you’re social activist and recently-graduated American Film Institute Fellow Casey Cooper Johnson, you pick the latter. With insightful brown eyes, shorn salt and pepper locks and a self-deprecating manner, Casey has an almost Clooney-esque vibe about him as he describes how a young, hippie know-it-all landed in a refugee infirmary, walked across a war-torn country and finally found himself smack-dab in the middle of his true calling.

Meeting in one of the cramped screening/classrooms at AFI, we talked about film, family and finding your life in post-war Kosovo.

Photography by Cristina Lordache
Casey Cooper Johnson

BFM: Congratulations on graduating from AFI and the premiere of your thesis film, UNMANNED. That has to feel like a huge accomplishment.

Casey: Yeah. I hadn’t ever imagined going back to school in the first place, so returning to Los Angeles and getting my master’s in filmmaking is pretty exciting.

BFM: Let’s go a little further back for a minute because, rumor has it, you were born and raised in a commune here in the Hollywood Hills.

Casey: I wasn’t raised in the commune but I was born, oddly enough, just about two miles away in a big house on Sunset Boulevard, basically in a Reichian Therapy commune in the ’70s.(Reichian Therapy is an alternative, holistic therapy that strives to put people in touch with their innate capacity for joy).Casey: At a pretty early age my parents split and my mom packed me up and moved to northern California, so I kind of grew up between two families. We all kept migrating north and eventually, I went and lived with my dad, stepmom and my seven brothers and sisters, from his side of the family, in Mount Shasta, Calif.

BFM: And that’s where the rock band was formed.

Casey: (laughing and shaking his head) Yes. There was a short time where my dad and I had a rock band together called Gravity.

Photography by Cristina Lordache /
Casey Cooper Johnson on set

BFM: This was 1999, a couple years after you had graduated from University of California-Berkeley with a degree in environmental education.

Casey: Yes, I had focused on environmental education and policy there, and had no inkling at that  time that I’d be interested in doing anything with film.

BFM: Also, right around that time, NATO had launched a military campaign to halt Slobodan Milosevic and his intended “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo Albanians.

Casey: Yes.BFM: And you decide you’re going to go to Kosovo. Casey: That’s right.BFM: How did you come to that decision of “I’m packin’ a bag and goin’ to Kosovo”?

Casey: It was almost as rash and illogical as that. I was 25, our rock band wasn’t going too far, I wasn’t getting any jobs in the environmental field, relationships were kind of crazy and I really had, what I would call now, a quarter-life crisis. I just had this sense that I was really, um —

BFM: Floundering?

Casey: Floundering. And at that moment what was on the news day and night was Kosovo. I just had this whole light bulb go off and I thought that’s what I’m going to do.

BFM: That’s an interesting thing that we talk about a lot at Blindfold. So many people see injustices or difficulties and they want to help but then “reality” kicks in and there’s a disconnect between the desire and the actual doing — the getting on the plane or in the car and going — so how —

Casey: I think I was kind of hoping people were gonna call my bluff. (laughing) I think I was looking for people to say “That’s so dangerous, don’t go!”

Photography by Cristina Lordache /
Casey Cooper Johnson

BFM: Yeah.

Casey: And then there was some sense, you know, that maybe if I need to get some space from everything, it will sound more noble if I’m going to volunteer in a refugee camp than if I say I’m heading to Hawaii to learn how to surf. I really think, subconsciously, I was looking for something magnanimous to say I was going to do as I ran away from my problems.

After contacting more than 30 human-aid organizations such as the Red Cross, the United Nations and the International Refugee Committee, Casey was told by all of them that he was not qualified for handling crisis situations and therefore no help to them. In the end it was a tiny, two-week-old non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Balkan Sunflowers who finally gave him a shot.

Casey: They were a hippie little NGO that had just started. They said, “If you can get yourself here at your own expense and with your own wits, welcome aboard!” When I got to the refugee camp in Albania, I almost immediately became very ill, and was bedridden. I thought: this is my terrible karma (for using this as my escape), (laughing) I’ve come here, to this war-torn place and have essentially added to their problems with my illness! But it turned out to be really perfect, because not long after I got through my initial shell shock, the war ended really quickly and within a month we were on buses returning with these refugees, back to Kosovo.

At that point the Balkan Sunflowers sent Casey to Peja, a town that had been very heavily hit during the fighting, with orders to start programs for the children to which the organization could then send other volunteers. Before long, he was no longer a volunteer himself but one of the organization’s project directors.

Casey: That was when the adventure really began. Within a couple of months we’d started projects with the children to clean up city parks and organize spaces for kids to come and do activities — suddenly there were volunteers from other countries joining us.

BFM: And not long after your family began to join you as well.

Casey: Yes. Two of my sisters were traveling in Europe and I convinced them to visit Peja for a week. Once they got there they became really excited and started doing children’s theater projects and painting.

BFM: And then the rest of your family came.

Casey: I think that’s where my family differs from a lot of families in America, because that wasn’t even the first time they’d discussed moving there. In the beginning when I said I was going to Kosovo, my dad was like, “OK, then we’re all going!” (laughing) Of course everyone looked at him like he was nuts. But once my sisters were there with me, it was like a critical mass. Eventually they sold their house in Mount Shasta.

BFM: And you and your family did this 23-day walk across Kosovo?

Casey: Yes. (laughing) Luckily Kosovo is such a small place that we put on backpacks and hiked a circle around the country in about three weeks. Each night people would put us up in the town or village where we stopped and it kind of got to be a thing that the local papers tracked us — sort of “Where’s the American family now?” We spent a lot of time on the road figuring out how to explain what we were doing.

BFM: And what was that?

Casey: We didn’t exactly know. It was somehow linked to honoring the refugee exodus. Part of it was showing that we were there and dedicated to helping, and part of it was just sort of figuring how to do that.

Photography by Cristina Lordache /
Casey Cooper Johnson on set

BFM: Eventually you collaborated with survivors of the massacre to write and perform a theatrical piece called Passion of the Birthfire that ended up touring the country.

Casey: It was a play that my father Alan wrote and my sister Sophie directed — it was a real sort of family affair. I made some music for it. We’d never done theater before. Sometimes now I look back and kind of laugh at how we would just go.

Sometimes now I look back and kind of laugh at how we would just go off the cuff with really no idea what we were doing. But we all got into it.Performed throughout Kosovo, the play tried to honor the experiences of those who escaped, and also broach the question of the country’s future and reconciliation. In hindsight, Casey says he realizes it was very difficult for some people to see the international community and his own small group, both well-meaning, come from the outside and suggest that it was time for those who remained to surmount their pain and forgive.

Casey: We met with some mixed responses. There was a lot of positive but at the same time there was also a reaction of “Hey, you don’t really understand it, so back off and give us some time.”

BMF: And your wife, Antonetta, who is also a filmmaker, was one of the performers in that play. Is that how you met?

Casey: Well, Netta was the first Kosovar to volunteer with the Balkan Sunflowers, which was how we met. I was sure any day she would look at this ridiculous, rowdy group of hippie-foreigners riding bikes all around the village with our long hair, and just say, “I’m not comin’ back tomorrow.” But she always did.

BFM: You’ve said you and your wife learned to be filmmakers together.

Casey: Yes, we organized a summer camp for the kids and both Netta and her sister Sevdije (SEV-DEE-EH) were camp counselors. We hired Mark Landsman, a filmmaker from New York, to come out and do a month-long documentary workshop with some teenagers that resulted in a 15-minute  documentary called Postcards from Peja about the kid’s perspective of the war and life after.

BFM: And it showed at some festivals.

Casey: It played at the youth section of the Sundance Festival that year and New York’s Human Rights Watch Festival. Afterward we were left with all this camera equipment and a real sense of excitement about what they had managed to make in just one month. So we started filming our activities — like the walk — and coming up with ideas for our own documentaries.

In 2003 Casey and Netta married and moved to the capital, Pristina. The two of them, along with Sevdjie decided to start their own documentary film company, Crossing Bridges. While making films, Casey also began to work for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network with a young Albanian British-trained journalist named Jeta Xharra (YE-TAH ZHARA). Considered an upstart because of her gender, her age and her hard-hitting journalism skills, Xharra created Life In Kosovo, a Sixty Minutes-like news program, and invited Casey to help her produce. The show dealt with the controversial issues facing a territory on its way to becoming a recognized nation. Besides organizing production, running cameras and juggling everything else it takes to generate a weekly news program on a shoestring,  Casey also began doing an Andy Rooney-inspired humorous commentary at the end of each program called “Kosovo’s Son-In-Law.”

CCJ: It was about the American-know-it-all-crazy guy who married into their country and now thinks he can solve all their problems with the sole purpose of trying to impress his father-in-law.

BFM: A little bit of art imitating life?

CCJ: (laughing) A little bit. There was a lot of sketch comedy involved — funny solutions for the very serious topics that we’d covered in the show.

BFM: So you’re creating documentaries, producing and performing for the most popular show on Kosovo television and you decide to leave it and come back to the states to go to film school.

CCJ: I was daydreaming a lot about doing fiction work and the opportunity for funding a return to school came by way of the scholarship program that had sent me through Berkeley. So Sevdjie and I both applied to AFI, she for cinematography and me for directing and we were both fortunate enough to get in. Netta, continuing to do documentaries, stayed the one professional filmmaker in the family.

BFM: And was it an easy adjustment, going from documentary into fiction?

CCJ: Well, I arrived at film school at 35 with eight years of film experience under my belt thinking I was pretty hot shit … (laughing) at least to myself — and I was just blasted at how hard it was to direct fiction. After the first few things that I did there was a pretty wide consensus that I directed everything like it was sketch comedy. (laughing) So it really was a sort of complete re-education.

BFM: Where did the idea come from for your thesis short film UNMANNED?

CCJ: My wife had seen a special feature on CNN about drone pilots who live in these suburban areas. They commute to work at the base and perform airstrikes in the war and then, at the end of their workday, go home to their normal lives. It’s a fascinating concept for everyone but particularly shocking for Netta who came from a place where war had hit everybody’s house and even a decade after it had ended we were still talking about its effects. America’s in two wars, one, the Afghan war, being the longest in American history and no one really talks about them. Here in Hollywood we’re discussing what premiered on Friday night.

BFM: And how long was the process?

CCJ: About a year and a half in the making from the genesis of that script. A production team is assembled from the different disciplines at the school: a producer, cinematographer, production designer and director come together to raise funds, go through pre-production and casting and work to make the film as they would in the real world. So far it seems to be paying off. UNMANNED has already been chosen to screen at this year’s AFI Fest and while it may seem that a film from the school would be a shoo-in, it’s really the opposite. Very few films from AFI are accepted into the festival therefore it’s quite an honor.

BFM: So what’s next?

CCJ: Very busy months of submitting to festivals and hoping to get the film seen by as many people as possible. I’m also working on the feature-length script for UNMANNED as we’ve decided by hook or by crook to shoot the full-length version by next fall.BF: Well, again congratulations and thanks for taking the time to talk to us.CCJ: Thank you.