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Tangled up in whales
The Gray's Reef Ocean Film Festival goes 'online' with Hawaii's humpbacks
The film documents the work of a handful of volunteers who remove marine debris from free-swimming humpback whales off the coast of Maui.<p>

Like the majority of the films in the 2011 Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival, In the Wake of Giants deals with one of the most clear and present dangers to our planet: The accumulation of man–made garbage in the seas.

This is also a central message in the ongoing Savannah Ocean Exchange, with which this weekend’s Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival is affiliated.

Just 16 minutes long, In the Wake of Giants is a powerful reminder of man’s harmful impact on the oceans. It documents the work of a handful of volunteers who remove marine debris – ropes, nets, chains and enormous buoys – from humpback whales off the coast of Maui.

These are 40– to 50–foot creatures that migrate annually between Hawaii and Alaska, and getting close to them – even when they’re entangled and weighed down with trash – is a formidable task.

“The executive producers really felt strongly that this was a movie about whales,” says the film’s writer/director Lou Douros, “and I kept coming back saying ‘Actually, it’s really a film about people who work with whales.’ If you look at the journey the film goes on, it’s really with those folks, the network of volunteers.”

A veteran documentary–maker, Douros never actually went out on the Maui rescue boats; space was simply too tight. The extraordinarily compelling whale footage in In the Wake of Giants was shot via cameras mounted on the rescuers’ helmets.

Douros’ job was to take this footage, interweave it with interviews he conducted (on land) with the principals, and tell the best story he could.

“This is what they refer to now as authenticity programming, rather than reality,” Douros explains. “Where people are gonna do what they do regardless of whether there’s a camera there or not.

“Because it was an already–existing thing, as a writer what I was doing more of was guiding the flow of the way the program would go. Letting it emerge, but also trying to coax it along a little bit. And it was a bit of a trick.”

Each day, when the rescue boats returned, they would hand their helmet–cams over to Douros.

“You’re limited to some degree by the footage that you have, or wish you had,” he says. “You can’t force the story. When I did the interviews, I’d already looked at the selects for the stories that I wanted to use.”

Led by Ed Lyman of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the team – which spends months training during the times of the year when the whales aren’t there – responds to reports from local boaters.

Sometimes it takes hours to locate the fast–swimming animal, and to assess the degree of entanglement each time it surfaces to breathe. Other times – as In the Wake of Giants documents – the whales are entangled in lobster or crab lines, anchored to the bottom, and are literally stationary. And exhausted. And terrified.

Caution, Lyman says in the film, is essential, as a frightened whale can cause pretty serious damage with a thrashing fluke or pectoral fin.

The rescuers don’t actually touch the animals; the lines are cut with a specially-crafted blade at the business end of a long pole.

“All told, I had around 200 hours of footage to go through, from three rescue seasons,” Douros explains. “It was the equivalent of someone giving you the tapes from a 7–11 convenience store security camera and saying ‘Here, go make a film.’

“Because a lot of it is just sort of trundling along, looking for the animal, or getting ready to set another buoy, and it’s really not all that exciting. So to find that needle in the haystack was really tricky.”

For Lou Douros, who’ll be at the Sept. 23 screening for a Q&A wih the audience, says the praise lavished on his film is particularly gratifying.

“It was a real labor of love,” he explains. “When they first brought this story to me they said ‘Hey, there are these guys that are rescuing humpbacks out in Maui.’ And I just though oh no, not another ‘save the whales’ story. The world doesn’t need another one of those.

“But everywhere it’s shown, we get a similar response: ‘I had no idea there were such cool jobs.’”

“I’ve also had people suggest that they have a telepathic ability to communicate with whales, and calm them down, so could I please put them in touch? You get all kinds.”


Gray's Reef Ocean Film Festival

Day 1

When: At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22

Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 W. York St.

Films: A Sea Change, The Krill is Gone, In Deep, An Ocean of Truth

Day 2

When: At 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

Musical performance: Bob Zantz

Films: The Majestic Plastic Bag, Bag It, The Bag vs. The Bay, An Ocean of Truth, In the Wake of Giants (plus Q&A with filmmaker Lou Douros)

Day 3

When: At 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24

Where: Tybee Island Marine Science Center, 1509 Strand Street, Tybee Island

What: Children's Ocean Film Festival (National Geographic films)


When: At noon Saturday, Sept. 24

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

Short films from SCAD, the Ocean Science Bowl
Films: "An Ocean of Truth," "Once Upon a Tide"

Admission: All events are free