Something to Sea 

The Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Ocean Film Festival is an entirely new species, one that has never been seen before on the Atlantic coast.

The festival, which is set for Sept. 10-12, is the first ocean-themed film festival ever presented on the East Coast. “The first one in the United States was held in San Francisco last year,” says Sanctuary Manager Reed Bohne.

“There have been ocean-themed festivals in France over the last 20 years,” he says. “This is the first time that one has been put together on the East Coast. We’re happy to be able to sponsor it for Savannah.”

With its coastal location and proximity to Gray’s Reef, one of only 13 marine sanctuaries worldwide, Savannah is the ideal location for the festival. The city is home to the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and marine science programs at Savannah State University, Georgia Southern University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.

It also boasts the Savannah College of Art and Design, which offers 23 academic majors in art and design, including broadcast design, film and television and sound design. The college also hosts the Savannah Film Festival, a renowned event in its own right.

About 20 films will be presented during the Ocean Film Festival’s run and admission to the whole thing is free. The festival is sponsored by Gray’s Reef, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and SCAD.

On all three days, films and videos will be shown at Trustees Theater. On Sunday, several children’s videos will be shown at the Tybee Marine Science Center.

At least a third of the films have never been screened in this region. Nine program blocks of two to three hours each will be presented throughout the film festival.

In the past, Gray’s Reef sponsored the Ocean Fest on River Street to educate and entertain the public. “This is taking its place,” Bohne says.

However, some of the fun of Ocean Fest has been carried over to the film festival. Singers Bob and Judy Williams will present sea shanties and Jimmy Buffet songs in the theater lobby before the screenings, and the Puppet People will greet guests as members of King Neptune’s Court.

After the success of the film festival held in California, which was sponsored by a sister sanctuary of Gray’s Reef, the Gray’s Reef staff began to put together its own festival. “I hope that the people who attend will certainly be entertained and that they will find the films fascinating,” Bohne says.

“There is also a strong educational message in many of them,” he says. “We hope people will relate to the issues of ocean protection and stewardship, and our relationship with the seas.”

In addition to the films, three top filmmakers will be at the festival to discuss their work. They are Fabien Cousteau, grandson of famed explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau, noted sealife photographer Robert Talbot and David Lebrun, creator of the award-winning animated documentary Proteus.

Gray’s Reef is part of the National Marine Sanctuary System. “Cousteau and Talbot are both on the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation,” Bohne says. “We worked with the foundation to bring them to Savannah.

“We are really excited that both are able to attend,” he says. “After each session, we plan to have the audience talk with them in question-and-answer sessions.”

Cousteau will be at the festival Sept. 11 to introduce Keiko: Born to be Wild and Keiko: The Gate to Freedom. The films were produced by his father, Jean-Michel Cousteau, but Fabien Cousteau is a filmmaker in his own right;

Cousteau started diving at the age of 4, and at 7, embarked on his first expedition to Papua, New Guinea. When he was 12, he joined the crew of the Calypso and the Alcyone, his grandfather’s ships.

Despite his family background in ocean exploration, Cousteau earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Boston University. After graduation, he went to work for the environmental organization Seventh Generation.

But after three years, Cousteau joined his father in Deep Ocean Odyssey, a marine exploration organization that his grandfather had founded. He has done a National Geographic special on sharks, and recently has been in Mexico to do further filming of sharks.

Talbot is world-renowned for his marine photography and cinematography. He also is a marine conservationist and animal rights advocate.

He is best known for images of dolphins and whales and is the director of Talbot Productions, a multi-media production company. Talbot has been awarded the U.S. Department of Commerce Environmental Hero Award and the Ark Trust’s Genesis Award.

As a filmmaker, Talbot filmed the wildlife sequences in the Free Willy feature films for Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures’ Flipper. He also has directed and photographed several IMAX films.

Lebrun’s film Proteus will be presented on the festival’s opening night. It premiered at the 2004 Sundance film festival and was the winner of best documentary awards at the 2004 Philadelphia and Santa Cruz film festivals.

It took Lebrun 23 years to finish Proteus. “It wasn’t my full-time project,” he says. “It was self-funded. It grew from small to big and I worked on it at night and on weekends.

“Part of the reason it was difficult to get the film made was because it didn’t fit into any mainstream slot,” Lebrun says. “In government grant applications, it asked what category the film belongs in. I always wanted to check all seven choices.”

Proteus is a one-of-a-kind visual experience. “It made the film difficult to describe and explain,” Lebrun says.

For 10 years, Lebrun owned and operated a production and distribution company as his day job. When he sold the company, he decided it was time to finish Proteus, named for the Greek god of the sea.

A true labor of love, Proteus combines animation and documentary techniques. “It began with something that fascinated me,” Lebrun says.

That was the discovery of the work of Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century doctor turned biologist and artist. Haeckel discovered 4,000 species of one-celled organisms called Radiolarian and created illustrations of them that are still known today for their complexity and beauty.

Haeckel’s major work was Art Forms in Nature, a tome still used in biology and art classes. “Many artists have it in their studios,” Lebrun says.

The drawings and paintings are perfect for animation. “It was as if I had found an animated film from 100 years ago,” Lebrun says. “Here was an artist in the 19th century who was actually painting animation cells.”

Lebrun transferred to film 1,000 of Haeckel’s 4,000 images. “Radiolarian look like glass skeletons,” Lebrun says. “Every one looks different. With animation, I was able to make them look like they were dancing and revolving.”

In Proteus, Lebrun focuses on Haeckel’s work. But the film also weaves in a tapestry of poetry and myth, biology and oceanography, scientific history and spiritual biography of the 19th century.

Haeckel was born in 1834 and died in 1919. In his lifetime, the oceans were viewed much as outer space was viewed in the latter half of the 20th century -- as the ultimate scientific frontier.

“Haeckel joined a 19th century British expedition that explored the depths of the ocean in the way 20th century astronauts explored outer space,” Lebrun says.

Originally, Lebrun looked at about 80 of Haeckel’s drawings. “At the UCLA medical library, I found more,” he says.

Lebrun also did research on Haeckel’s life story. “I became fascinated with him and the whole expedition,” Lebrun says. “The oceans were places where mankind imagined monsters and placed nightmares and dreams.

“Haeckel as a young man was torn between art and science,” Lebrun says. “Through the voyages, he began to see there was a way to unite both.”

Because of his parents’ insistence that he study medicine, Haeckel originally became a doctor. But it was as a biologist and artist that he found his niche.

“Most 19th century reproduction was done by lithograph,” Lebrun says. “Haeckel sent his illustrations back to newspapers, which reproduced them and printed them.

“He influenced all kinds of people,” Lebrun says. “Sigmund Freud, D.H. Lawrence, Lenin and Thomas Edison are some of the people who knew Haeckel’s work.”

Despite his influence on the art world, Haeckel’s scientific studies have been all but forgotten over time. One of his best-known theories was discredited and much of his other work began to be ignored.

“But his images have held up pretty well,” Lebrun says. “He was a huge influence on the Art Nouveau movement.”

Lebrun began to look for poems from the 19th century to use in conjunction with the animation in Proteus. “The poems are about the depths of the ocean and its imagery,” he says.

To this were added images created by 19th century painters, graphic artists, photographers and scientific illustrators. All were photographed from rare materials in European and American collections and have rarely been seen by the public.

“The film slowly grew in concentric circles,” Lebrun says. “New layers kept accruing. Proteus deals with everything from theology and religion to ocean and marine biology to poetry and art and Romanticism and history.”

In 1986, Lebrun traveled to East Germany to do filming at the Ernst Haeckel Haus in Jena. There he saw original letters, poems, ship logs and scientific narratives, plus Haeckel’s art work.

“This was before the Berlin Wall came down,” Lebrun says. “I filmed his original work in 35 mm film.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1944, Lebrun came to film from a background in anthropology and philosophy. The son of a well-known painter, he was sent to an alternative high school in Arizona that emphasized world cultures.

“I went to a high school where everyone was required to take anthropology,” Lebrun says. “I did field research among the Hopi and Navajo.

“I intuited an anthropological way of seeing things early on,” he says. “I studied philosophies of culture and language in college.”

Then Lebrun discovered filmmaking and, later, animation. “I came to filmmaking and animation at a very opportune time, when 16 mm film became available,” he says.

“It was similar to the digital revolution,” Lebrun says. “Film was available for people to take out into the streets. There was all kinds of experimentation going on. I was influenced by all of those things.”

In his films, Lebrun has examined such topics as European signs and symbols, Tibetan Tanka paintings and Pre-columbian stamp designs. “I use animation techniques to work with existing images of other cultures and past cultures,” he says. “I had been trying to get inside people’s way of seeing. Those were the projects I wanted to do -- explore the inner workings of other people.

“Each film I do is different in style,” Lebrun says. “The style comes out of the culture and imaginary world of the different people I am filming.

“A lot of documentaries are quickly put together,” he says. “You see the same images over and over. I do my utmost to make sure the images in my films are ones that have never been seen. They are from unfamiliar worlds.”

In this case, the unfamiliar world is the 19th century as it was seen by the people who lived then. “All the images used are from that period,” Lebrun says.

During his career, Lebrun has served as producer, director, writer or editor of more than 60 films. He has filmed the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, Mexican folk artists and a 1960s traveling commune.

Lebrun edited the Academy Award-winning feature documentary Broken Rainbow, some of his other films include Sanctus, The Hog Farm Movie and Tanka

Presently, Lebrun is working on Breaking the Maya Code, his most ambitious project to date. It is a film about the history of the deciphering of the ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing system, and is being produced through a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“It is a 400-year history of of the Mayan writing system,” Lebrun says. “It took 200 years to decipher it and give the world a look at Maya literature and culture.”

While in Savannah, Lebrun will teach an animation class at SCAD. He also will say a few words before Proteus is screened and will take part in a question-and-answer session after.

The other films shown during the festival will explore the beauty and complexity of the oceans and the marine ecosystem, as well as the creatures who live in them. The offerings are widely diverse, with a variety of styles and formats.

Bohne credits Gray’s Reef staff member Gail Krueger with finding the films. “Gail has been putting a lot of work into this,” he says.

“She has done a lot of searching for appropriate videos and films to put together an exciting list of films to show,” he says. “There is a really nice variety of topics of interest to everyone.

“I hope folks will get the word on this,” Bohne says. “We want to get as many folks to come to this as we can.”

If the film festival is a success, it could become an annual event. “We want to see how well it is received,” Bohne says.

“Since it is the first time, we want to make sure things run smoothly,” he says. “With SCAD’s help, we might consider doing this on an annual basis.”

The Gray’s Reef staff hopes that the films and videos will reinforce the importance of the oceans in festival-goers’ minds.

“Film is one of the best ways to educate people,” Bohne says. “The oceans are so inaccessible, but film brings their stories to people. You don’t have to strap on scuba tanks to get a sense of what it is like to be in a place like Gray’s Reef.”

Savannah Ocean Film Festival schedule of events:

Friday, Sept. 10 at Trustees Theater, the doors will be open from 6:30-10:30 p.m. The films will start at 7 p.m.
Oceanmen -- Extreme Dive and Dolphins & Orcas by Robert Talbot will be presented at 7:15 p.m., followed by David Lebrun’s Proteus at 8:15 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 11 at Trustees Theater, ocean videos will be presented from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The doors will open for the evening program at 6:30 p.m.
Keiko: Born to be Wild will be presented at 7 p.m. and Keiko: Gate to Freedom will be presented at 8:15 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 12 at Trustees Theater, ocean videos will be presented from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Also on Sunday, the Tybee Island Marine Science Center will present a special day of children’s programs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission to all events is

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Linda Sickler

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