One year ago, Joshua Williams was working in a warehouse, moving pallets for 12 hours a day.
The West Philadelphia native and award-winning filmmaker said he began to pray, asking God what the next step in his life should be.
Williams’ journey led him on a month’s-long trip across Pennsylvania, interviewing dozens of people who were fighting against the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and government overreach. His creation, “The Return of the American Patriot: The Rise of Pennsylvania,” chronicles the work done by politicians, business owners, activists and everyday parents across the state to push back against tyranny.
On July 16, Williams was on hand at Christ Community Church in Camp Hill with more than 1,000 attendees to watch the premiere of his hour-long film. He gave credit to the Creator for leading him to direct the project and to allow the voices of people to be heard far and wide.
“He was building me up in that season,” Williams said. “Now a year later, here I am.”
Williams started filming “The Return of the American Patriot” in February after Ralph Cochran, the president of Turley Talks LLC and the producer of the film, approached him about taking on the project. Williams was already editing videos for Turley Talks, but Cochran said he saw the young filmmaker’s talent and wanted to utilize him on a bigger project.
Williams had already gained some recognition for his 2019 short film “When the Dust Clears,” which tells the story of a survivor of Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York who has to battle depression and health impacts. Williams won the “Best Indie Short” award at the 2019 Los Angeles Film Awards for the movie, and it was picked up for distribution on Amazon Prime Video.
The crew of “The Return of the American Patriot” spent most of the beginning of 2022 traveling around Pennsylvania, interviewing individuals involved in grassroots freedom movements, including Tabitha Valleau, the founder of FreePA, and Toni Shuppe, a co-founder of Audit the Vote. The Lancaster Patriot owners Dave and Jen Stoltzfus are also featured in the documentary.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Senator Doug Mastriano features prominently in the film, talking about his fight against oppression from the pandemic lockdowns while standing on the battlefield of Gettysburg. One of the final scenes filmed for the movie was Mastriano’s victory speech in Chambersburg after the May 17 primary election results were announced.
Williams said he finished the editing process the day before the film premiere. The project involved long hours of work for Williams, including seven days a week for several months straight.
Williams said he hopes people will take away the idea of “being encouraged and inspired” after seeing the movie.
“You spend days and weeks at your computer editing, but you don’t really realize what you’ve made until it’s in an environment like this, with a big screen and people responding to it,” Williams said. “I didn’t even know what I really made until I saw it like this. It was pretty emotional, and I’m just thankful to be able to serve the Lord and inspire people.”
Throughout the film premiere on July 16, audible cheers, gasps and jeering were made by the audience as the subjects talked about their experiences during COVID-19. Williams said the reactions felt like the audience understood what was being portrayed and that they were a part of what was shown in the film.
Williams said the most difficult part of making “The Return of the American Patriot” was staying motivated over the long hours of the tedious editing process, going over and over small segments of the movie to perfect it. He said the filmmaking process can become tiring.
“But you keep reminding yourself that this film is not for you – this is for the people and the Lord,” Williams said. “That keeps you going.”
One of the easiest elements of creating the film was interview the subjects, Williams said, calling them “genuine people” with a serious story to tell.
Williams said he most enjoyed the moments where he could sit down and focus on a segment to find ways to make it inspirational and “find creative ways to build into something exciting.” He said ideas would constantly pop in his head for ways to add to the narrative of the film.
“The Return of the American Patriot” was a collaborative process between Williams and Conrad Franz, a journalist for Turley Talks and the script writer for the film.
Franz said working on the film was challenging since he currently lives in Austin, Texas, creating creative scheduling processes for the interviews so they could fit into his travel schedule. Franz said his strategy and mindset going into writing the movie was to highlight the growth of the patriot movement in one small segment of the country.
Franz said the current patriot movement really started with the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president in 2016, but he wanted to demonstrate that the movement has grown on its own even after Trump left office last year and will continue to grow whether or not he is there.
“I don’t want to say it wrote itself, but it’s telling the story of what really happened,” Franz said. “It’s a piece of history that shows an era in American history that might get overshadowed by the conclusions of this movement. But this movie is going to be here. So whether we win or lose, people will still remember what the fight looked like.”
A surprising thing Franz said he learned while working on the film was how “deep blue” and liberal parts of Pennsylvania can be. He said COVID lockdowns in some Pennsylvania cities and counties mirrored places as liberal as Vermont, Massachusetts or California.
“This was like Los Angeles level stuff or Seattle level stuff with the things I was hearing from Governor Wolf or AG Shapiro,” Franz said. “That definitely helped invigorate me and made me think that these people need to go. There are millions and millions of normal people in this state that didn’t vote for any of this, and they don’t need to be languishing under this kind of regime.”
Attacks on the Film
Even before the July 16 premiere of “The Return of the American Patriot,” the filmmakers endured more than a week of attacks by liberal activists who had not seen the film, getting it canceled at Penn Cinema in Lititz and at the Wyndham Lancaster Resort and Convention Center in East Lampeter Township. Christ Community Church, the eventual host of the premiere, has been inundated with further attacks by leftists, sending complaints to the IRS to revoke its tax-exempt status.
The same leftist activists on social media labeled the film as supporting “Christian nationalism,” “fascism” and “white supremacy.” Several media outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, LNP and Vice carried the extremist label in its coverage of the film.
Franz said he hopes people will think more before giving credence to what the media says after watching what is actually portrayed in the film. He said the lives of normal people who owned businesses or simply trying to do the best for their families had their lives destroyed by lies and distortions.
“Before you slander somebody and tell them that they’re a white supremacist, you really need to take a step back and think about the humanity behind the person and then take that step back and do it for an entire community,” Franz said.
Williams, who is black, said he “chuckles” when he hears he directed a “white supremacist film.” He said the large, diverse attendance at the film premiere showed the weakness of the arguments and labels coming from activists.
“We don’t need to fear them because we know it’s not true,” Williams said. “Listen, we’re going to stand firm. You can call us whatever you want. But at the end of the day, we’re going to stand for truth.”
Staff writer Michael Yoder can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @YoderReports on Twitter.