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Fish tales
2008 Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival makes waves with more than 50 films
Jim Carswell, left, at a turtle nest

LEGENDARY filmmaker Werner Herzog focuses on life-and-death questions about the future of the planet in his documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

Herzog filmed scientists at the South Pole to create the film, which will be presented Sept. 19 at Trustees Theater as part of the 2008 Gray’s Reef Ocean Film Festival. This year’s festival runs Sept. 18-21 with guest speakers and more than 50 films.

A film by Feodor Pitcairn, Ocean Voyager, will open the festival on Sept. 18 at the Jepson Center auditorium. The festival will feature something for everyone, ranging from films for children to award-winning documentaries.

The filmmakers come in a wide range, too. There will be everything from documentaries created by National Geographic to student films created by students at the Savannah College of Art and Design, who will be vying for the Dr. Robert O. Levitt prize for emerging filmmakers.

While Herzog’s film might make the biggest splash, it is the films created by locals that will be warming hearts. The world premiere of Turtle Dance by Jim and Mari Carswell of Savannah will be presented Sept. 20.

“It’s a film about an amazing recovery for the most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s Ridley,” says Jim Carswell, a former news anchor for WSAV and WTOC. “In the mid-1980s, there were only 300 of these turtles left.”

Historical records show that at one time, as many as 40,000 Kemp’s Ridley turtles nested in a single day. When their numbers declined so drastically, the United States and Mexico united in a unique effort to save the endangered species.

“What’s really amazing is that this project is being held up as a role model because of its holistic approach,” Mari Carswell says. “They partnered with shrimpers to save the turtles.”

The turtles nest only on a remote beach in Northeastern Mexico. “The villagers were taking the eggs and using them for food,” Mari says. “It’s a very poor area.”

“The people typically live in shacks, with no electricity, no running water, no phones,” Jim says. “They had no way to make a living. They were focusing on the turtle as a source of food.”

“Then people started buying eggs by the truck loads,” Mari says. “The shrimpers helped build a kiln. Teachers were brought in from the University of South Texas to teach the people how to make pottery.”

Today, the residents have established a business creating and selling turtle-themed pottery around the world. “Now they have a pride in the turtles and can make money by keeping the turtles alive,” Mari says.

The Carswells will answer questions after the screening of Turtle Dance and they’ll also have samples of the pottery on display. “We’d like to try to get it into aquariums to sell to help sustain the effort,” Mari says.

Through the project, the turtles are rebounding. Their numbers have grown from 300 to 7,500.

“They’re hoping to release a million hatchlings,” Jim says. “That sounds like a lot, but only one in a thousand will reach adulthood.”

Mari was developing the Wild American Shrimp campaign when she learned about the Kemp’s Ridley turtle through a shrimper. The Carswells knew they had a story that was begging to be told.

“Typically, the shrimper has been seen as the nemesis of sea turtles,” Jim says. “Here, they are using their own money to bring the turtles back. It made for a great story.”

“This is the only turtle that nests in the light of day,” Mari says. “We have the first underwater footage ever taken of the turtle, because it’s so rare.”

The project has been led by Dr. Pat Burchfield, director of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. In the film, he is seen swimming with the turtles.

“On the shore, the turtles are brown and sandy, and blend with the beach,” Mari says. “Everyone describes them as brown and ugly.

“We took Pat down to an area near Cancun where we were able to film in a natural lagoon,” she says. “When the turtles went into the lagoon, all of a sudden they turned brilliant copper, with teal appendages. They were beautiful! Everyone’s jaws were dropping. It’s so rare, few people have seen it.”

The film includes a scene that was filmed at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. “They’ve been helping treat teenage turtles who were found off Cape Cod, where they got too cold and got into trouble,” Mari says.

“There’s a bit of mystery about what happens to the hatchlings,” Jim says. “We’re hoping to help connect the dots of what happens to these turtles after they leave the beach. They travel all way up the East Coast to Cape Cod, then return 13 years later. It takes them 13 years to reach sexual maturity.”

“Right now, we’re in danger of losing a lot of species because of man’s issues,” Mari says. “The bottom line is this project is showing that with help and effort, we can reverse what we’re doing.”

“A lot of people say it’s just a turtle,” Jim says. “But take any turtle away and it throws the environment out of balance. That’s why it’s important to bring back every species we can.”

Creating the film wasn’t easy. The turtles nest only when it’s hot and windy. “That’s their cover,” Mari says. “They wait for the wind to blow and the sand to pick up.

“Once a turtle lays its eggs, it rocks back and forth and does a turtle dance,” Mari says. “That’s where the film got its name. It rocks its body like crazy.”

Turtle Dance isn’t the only world premiere at the festival. Local filmmaker Michael Jordan will be premiering his film, Jane Yarn: Marsh Lady of the Georgia Coast.

Yarn was Jimmy Carter’s top environmental adviser, first when he was governor in the 1960s, then later, when he was president.

“They didn’t use the term environmentalist then,” Jordan says. “She was a conservationist. This was back before the environment was a divisive issue. She was bi-partisan, and able to work across the political aisle.”

Yarn, who died in 1995 of breast cancer, was the wife of an Atlanta physician. “She had a life of privilege, to some extent,” Jordan says. “In the late 60s, they went on a safari in Africa and it changed her life. She came home and became an activist.”

One of the early leaders of the Nature Conservancy, Yarn particularly loved the coast. “She was able to round up massive support around the state in an effort to save the barrier islands,” Jordan says. “That was back when developers wanted to mine the barrier islands and dump the waste in the marshes. She got garden club ladies all over the state to write letters.

At one point, Yarn convinced her husband to buy two of the barrier islands. They brought other donors onboard to help save them.

“She was able to help save Cumberland Island when the developers wanted to put in something like Hilton Head,” Jordan says. “She helped to keep the coast wild. Georgia has the majority of the East Coast’s salt marshes, so she realized that was a treasure.”

Yarn was a member of the Council for Environmental Quality. “Her crowning achievement was during the last few days of the Carter administration, when President Carter was dealing with the Iran hostage crisis,” Jordan says. “She walked in and got him to sign legislation for what became Gray’s Reef.”

To honor Yarn, a Gray’s Reef research vessel, actually an old Navy vessel, was named after her. When the ship became outdated and unusable, it was deliberately sunk to create an artificial reef for fish and other denizens of the deep. In creating the 30-minute documentary, Jordan interviewed Carter, Yarn’s husband and two of her mentors.

“They talk what she did for them,” Jordan says. “They all say that she would be honored by the sinking of the ship.”

When Jordan first began filming the documentary, his focus was on the ship, R/V Jane Yarn. “Then I realized the real story was the person,” he says.

Jordan includes the only footage taken on the day when the ship went under the water. “It went down in August and we dove in December,” he says. “There were hundreds of fish around it in no time.”

In addition to the Yarn documentary, two other films created by Jordan will be shown at the festival. Atoms for Peace is the story of the nuclear ship Savannah, and Ships for Victory is about the World War II-era shipyards that once were located in Savannah and Brunswick.

“There were 30,000 people between the two shipyards who built just under 200 ships,” Jordan says. “They had six slips at each shipyard, and each week they finished a ship that had been under construction for some time.”

The film premiered on Georgia Public Television, but has since been expanded. “Every time it’s aired or been shown to groups, I’ve met someone who needed to be interviewed,” Jordan says. “That includes people who served on the ships and people who worked on them, including three Brunswick sisters who were welders.”

Creating the Yarn film took four to five years. Jordan wants audiences to appreciate Yarn’s accomplishments.

“Hopefully, they’ll take away an understanding of how much difference one person can make,” he says. “Second, they’ll see how the land and sea are connected. Third, hopefully, they’ll realize environmentalism is not a left-wing issue.” cs

NOAA Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s Ocean Film Festival

When: Opens Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Jepson Center with the regional premiere of Feodor Pitcairn's Ocean Voyager. The festival will continue Sept. 19, 20 and 21.

Where: Films shown at Trustees Theater.

Cost: Free and open to the public.

Info: or