‘Call Me Mule’ Documentary Should Be a Mandatory Watch

First off, what is Call Me Mule? 

Call Me Mule is a documentary following John Sears, AKA “Mule,” and his three Mules: Lady, Pepper, and Little Girl. Throughout the film, we follow Mule as he travels throughout the West Coast (with significant parts of the film taking part in the 510, 415, and 408!) John fights with his mules to maintain a nomadic lifestyle while sending a special message to the California Governor. Keep your eyes focused on the road, everyone. You might have seen him without realizing it! 

Onto the Review

Call Me Mule is the type of movie that will leave you with more questions about the world than answers. In less than two hours, audiences become increasingly captivated by Mule, whose persistence is to be awed upon versus looked down upon. Mule advocates for a more effortless way of life and being one with nature. We witness him as if a fly on the wall during encounters as law enforcement does their best to deter Mule’s intentions, but he doesn’t let that stop his mission in any way. 

A few sayings, such as “You never know what someone is going through” or “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” echoed far after the movie ended. We may not have been physically in Mule’s shoes, but seeing a day in the life and walking miles on the West Coast brought a new perspective on the unfavorable, ever-increasing urban sprawl. 

Few movies leave me wanting to know more about real-life subjects and their trajectory post-filming. Overall, John McDonald and his daughter, Nina Schwanse, beautifully bring an intimate and thought-provoking film compelling viewers to question their footprint and contributions to the never-ending changes. 

Bonus: An Interview with Director John McDonald

Throughout the film, we see John’s life like a fly on the wall. What was it like for you to be that fly on the wall for 27 months? How did you navigate and also adapt to John’s lifestyle while filming? 

First off, I never would have imagined that I would be filming for 200 days over 27 months. Even though John permitted me to follow him and signed a release, he could have cut me off at any time. Hanging out with John, who likes to be called Mule, and his mules was a lot of fun for the most part. We are close to the same age and grew to enjoy each other’s company. 

The shared experiences during our travels helped develop a mutual trust and respect relationship. I could find Mule’s location when he activated a GPS device that he carried. Sometimes I would walk alongside him carrying my equipment in an all-terrain twin baby stroller, ride a mountain bike, and occasionally ride a horse. 

When I would miss getting a shot the way I wanted, I would rarely get a second chance – he did not want to go back to do another “take.” Most of the time, I would sleep in motels or the homes of people I met. I camped with him a few times, but not often because I needed AC power to charge my camera batteries and download my footage every night. 

What was the collaboration experience like when working with your daughter, Nina? 

Let’s just say that Nina saved the film! I had no money to pay an editor, and Nina was out of a job as an assistant editor at a LA television production company when the pandemic hit. She told me she was available, had a vision for Call Me Mule, and would work for much less than the standard rate for editors. She had always been more of an artist and veered away from conventional film production, pursuing painting and video/installation art. I said why not; let’s give it a go. 

Starting from scratch, she threw out previous edits. She cut out all the “talking heads” and took a purely observational approach presented in John’s voice.  My cinematography provided her with a large piece of rough stone. For two years, on and off, she chiseled away and sculpted it into a beautiful piece of art. Nina found a way to tell John Sears’s story compellingly and sensitively within the vast footage.

You must have countless hours and footage left on the cutting room floor. Is there a specific scene or moment you wish you had a chance to include but didn’t? 

Two scenes could have been really good, but they never even made it to the cutting room! I got some great footage of the Mules camping during a heavy rainstorm. But, I lost the entire day’s worth when I incorrectly downloaded the footage in my motel room that night. 

Another time, someone stole my camera from the car, and I lost all of that day’s footage. I never even had a chance to look at that footage, but it had some memorable moments. People can see additional footage on the 3MulesMovie.com website on my video diary for the first 140 days of filming.  They are raw, roughly edited short clips with a bit of a behind-the-scenes look.

When people review this during Cinequest (or anywhere else), what do you hope the audience takes away once they step out of the theater? 

Cities and towns throughout America are wrestling with suburban expansion and shrinking open space, exploring ways of connecting communities with alternative modes of travel, debating citizens’ access to public land, and, perhaps most pressingly, searching for ways to address the increasing unhoused population in urban areas. Although Mule’s lifestyle and character appear unusual, his concerns are compellingly universal and go well beyond one individual’s fight to survive today’s rapidly developing sprawl. His struggle represents the freedom to live outside the norms of society and roam, rest, and sleep wherever his travels take him. 

Regardless of how we feel about Mule as an individual, his questions affect us all, and his voice offers a unique perspective that deserves to be heard. Call Me Mule illuminates public access issues, the right to public thoroughfare, and individual freedom by portraying the lifestyle of one man connected to the earth, his feet on the ground all day. 

It also depicts society’s treatment of people who are less conformist, less fortunate, and less firmly grounded–those flawed but fascinating characters existing on the fringe of normality and mental stability. Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Mule is empathy, for without trying to understand those who choose to live differently, we cannot create a kinder, more compassionate world for everyone to share.

What’s your biggest wish or hope for John now that you’ve parted ways? Have you been in contact since/shown him Call Me Mule

It would be great if he could attend a screening with his mules and feel good about how he and his life are portrayed. I hope he can continue his journey for many more years to come. We have not stayed in touch, but Nina was able to track him down a while ago, and they had a brief but pleasant conversation.

Call Me Mule heads to the Cinequest Summer Festival on Sunday, August 27, and Tuesday, August 29, inside ShowPlace ICON Theatre & Kitchen in Mountain View. Head to Cinequest’s website to purchase tickets: HERE.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

August 22, 2023

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