If you ever wondered what a real life Dwight Schrute, The Office’s resident beet farmer and all around weirdo would be like if he were an actual living, breathing, human being, watching the documentary My Name Is Jonah, which made its world premiere at the Boston Underground Film Festival, will give you an accurate idea. While the film purports to be an uplifting look at a man grabbing life by the balls and living it his own way, the reality is an often sad and disturbing product that pokes fun at a man suffering from mental health issues.
Jonah Washnis is a self-made legend who came into internet fame after posting thirty years worth of home footage onto his Myspace page in the mid-2000s. Obsessed with superheroes, fantasy realms, rock and roll and military paraphernalia, Jonah has turned his life in to one giant cosplay sandbox. His biggest obsession and claim to fame would be his annual Christmas card which find him concocting elaborate getups and hiring local models to pose with him as a Viking, or Robin Hood, or The Punisher…Jonah as surrounded himself with a lively cast of characters for friends including the enigmatic “Mr. Chips” who has a penchant for street brawls and bizarre taxidermy and a laconic friend with an ever present camcorder who hopes to capture the one moment that will catapult Jonah to worldwide fame. Jonah sees himself as an adventurer, living life on his own terms and answering to no one but himself. He knows if he was just given one chance, one opportunity, then he could earn himself and someone else a lot of money by exposing his idiosyncrasies to a larger audience.
Johnny “Jonah” Washnis is a lonely man in his early sixties that retreats into his fantasy world to escape from the harsh realities that life has dealt him. His father was an abusive, alcholic that once kept his daughter in a dirty diaper for so long that a putty knife was needed to scrape the filth off her bottom (this occurred when his wife was at the hospital giving birth to their youngest child). At the height of the Vietnam War and student protests over the draft, Jonah enlisted in the Army. Depending on who you believe he either spent the war engaging in covert special ops or stationed in Germany ingesting as many mind altering substances as his body could handle. After leaving the services he worked a number of menial labor jobs in upstate NY, purchased a ramshackle home where the paint peeled of the walls and extensive water damage rotted holes in the ceilings. Estranged from his family, he neglected his mother for years before she succumbed to Alzheimer disease. He met his wife through a Russian mail order bride service on to have her leave him when the bank foreclosed on his home, forcing him to stuff a life time’s worth of comic books, collectibles, weapons, and knick knacks into a rented storage unit.
These are the dueling sides of the film. The film veers dangerously close towards exploitation in contrasting Jonah’s jubilant, effusive belief over the quality of his work versus the reality of their amateurish and childlike presentation. The directing team of Phil Healy and JB Sapienza seem to take a cruel delight in presenting clip after clip of Jonah making a fool of himself without having a narrative to give the documentary a cohesive nature. It just seems to say to the audience “Look at this giant weirdo and laugh”. Sitting in the theater with the film’s subject in attendance, I could not help but feel sorry with each peel of audience laughter at the man, not with the man. It felt like he was the only person not in on the joke. The directors do set up a villain in Jonah’s estranged brother, a man with a severe hatred for him who never misses an opportunity to bad mouth Jonah. Even them, the film eventually peels back the brother’s own damaged psyche when he begins to espouse the view that his Jonah is the Antichrist, backing up his claim with numerological references.
My Name Is Jonah can be summed up in its final scene featuring Jonah’s band. In Jonah’s mind, he’s Angus Young, rocking out to thousands in a packed stadium, while the reality finds him in a dive bar a quarter filled by locals who regard him with bemusement in between downing shots of cheap whiskey. The brass ring may have eluded the man, but Jonah will keep reaching and keep telling himself better days are just around the next corner.