Film festival informs public about marine life

Only the Alaska Ocean Film Festival can take people to a nautical world where they can sit back, relax and even stay dry.

Anchorage residents got a glimpse of this side of paradise when they gathered at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub on Feb. 20 and 21 to watch 18 short films on saltwater and coastal cultures. The two-day event was just one stop in the festival’s 20-venue statewide tour that kicked off in October.

The festival, which is now in its fourth year, began as an outreach tool to inform people and get them involved with marine life and exploration, said Butch Allen, festival director and Oceans Organizer for the Alaska Center for the Environment.

“It’s a great way to get people excited and inspired about the ocean,” Allen said.

The entire festival is composed of more than 40 films shown in 20 locations across the state during a seven-month period. To accommodate the festival’s growing success, this year’s event is bigger than ever before, with five new venues across the state in Barrow, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue and Soldotna.

“We’re showing movies primarily in the winter in Alaska, and so people are starved for entertainment and winter escapes,” Allen said. “The more people we can reach, the better.”

In addition to serving new locations, the festival has added super-short films to the program. Ranging between 30 seconds to two minutes in length, super-shorts cover genres such as comedy, documentary and animation.

Also popular are the festival’s spotlight films. While many films cover aquatic adventures in various parts of the world, spotlight pictures focus on Alaska’s oceanic cultures in particular.

“Alaskans like to know about what’s going on in their backyard,” said Shawn Harper, filmmaker for the spotlight film “Aleutian Aquatic.” “Life as we know it depends on the oceans, no matter where you are. It’s a major part of the world we live in.”

Harper’s short documentary follows researchers as they explore the waters in an attempt to assess biodiversity, water quality and contaminants off the shores of Kagamil Island, part of the Aleutians.

“In all the scientific diving I’ve conducted to date, the Aleutians have been the most awe-inspiring in terms of natural beauty and marine life,” Harper said. “There is fascinating marine life around every corner, and the visibility in some places is the best you’ll find around Alaska.”

Another spotlight film focused on a different region of Alaska’s surrounding waters. Oceans specialist John Hocevar’s film “Canyons Expedition” depicts the first research exploration ever done in the Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons in the Bering Sea.

“These are huge areas, larger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon,” Hocevar said. “In fact, Zhemchug is the largest underwater canyon in the world.”

The group behind the three-week expedition was Greenpeace, a campaigning organization that strives to expose and promote solutions to environmental problems. When the North Pacific Fishery Management rejected proposals to protect the canyons, the group embarked on the exploration to find proof that positive changes needed to be made.

“We made this film so we could share our experience with people across Alaska and around the world, and hopefully to inspire people to join us in urging the council to act,” Hocevar said.

Clearly, the Alaska Ocean Film Festival is not only an entertaining event. It also acts as an outlet to inform the public about the world that exists beyond the land, how it links to humanity and why it is important to get involved.

People are just starting to realize, within the past decade, that the ocean is not an inexhaustible resource, Allen said. Because we live on land, it can be difficult for some people to realize the relationship we have with marine life.

“We don’t really have a good connection with the ocean,” Allen said. “People think of the ocean as just being out there, but scientists have discovered how the two are related.”

Michelle Ridgway, a marine biologist who took part in filming “Canyons Expedition,” agreed that our actions affect the ocean’s existence and vice versa.

“The ocean pretty much dictates the living conditions for life on earth,” Ridgway said. “It tremendously influences life in Alaska, not only climatically, but socially and spiritually.”

Written by Renee Dillard