‘Fishpeople’ tells stories of lives affected by the sea

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A new documentary by Santa Barbara filmmaker Keith Malloy, tells the stories of six people who have dedicated their lives to the ocean in different ways. Among them are a spear fisherman in Hawaii, a former coal miner in Australia and a youth worker in San Francisco.

Presented by Ventura-based outdoor retailer Patagonia, “Fishpeople,” screens at Patagonia headquarters on Thursday, April 20th and in Santa Barbara at the Sandbox on Friday, April 21st.

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian spoke with Malloy about why he chose to make this film.

Clockwise from top left: Dave Rastovich (surfer), Kimi Werner (spearfisher), Matahi Drollet (surfer/fisherman), Lynne Cox (open-water swimmer), Eddie Donnellan (youth worker), Ray Collins (photographer). (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

KCRW: You and your brothers are surfers as well as filmmakers. You could have made a surf film. Why go this route?

Keith Malloy: The ocean has affected me in such a positive way, and part of it’s surfing but part of it’s not surfing. We could have made a surf film, but I was much more interested in digging into these people and their lives.

In ways, making a surf film is harder. You have to camp out for a year to get incredible surf footage. I took each of the subjects in this film and hung out with them for a week.

The first story in the documentary is about Kimi Werner, a spear-fisherman in Hawaii. In one part, she speaks about encountering sharks. What’s her change in approach?

Out of all the characters in the film, Kimi is the one who comes in the most contact with sharks. Most of us don’t realize it, but sharks are just like any other creature out there. Kimi explains how intimation works toward them, as well.

“I was pulling in a nice fish that I was going to bring home for dinner, and this big shark came up to take it. I just swam faster toward my catch, pulled it in towards me, and swam at that shark. The minute I did that, that shark took off. It taught me the energy I put out there – the confidence and courage I show in holding my ground – is going to communicate to the sharks what kind of animal I am.”

– Kimi Werner

Kimi Werner holds on to a great white shark in Guadalupe Island. (Photo: Chris Wade) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

There’s also a story of Eddie Donnellan, a man who has made his life in San Francisco about teaching underprivileged kids how to get outside and enjoy the ocean. How did you come across him?

I’ve known Eddie for ten years as a surfer, and I’d always known about his work. It was a perfect story to explain the therapeutic values of the ocean. These are intercity kids that rarely get to go out into nature. At first, they don’t know what to do and are so out of their element. I didn’t see very many smiles at the beginning of the day. But, once we got them into the water, they become kids again. It was so beautiful to see. I don’t think there’s a better way to have these kids have a good time and clear their minds.

What’s the common thread in all these stories?

Whether they’ve meant to or not, these characters’s lives have revolved around the ocean, and the ocean has shaped them and made them the people they are.

You don’t talk about environmental issues surrounding the ocean (pollution, rising temperatures, etc.) in this film. Did that go through your mind at all?

It did, definitely. We don’t talk about it specifically, but I hope it’s a secondary thought. There’s not a heavy environmental message, other than, ‘Hey, look at the ocean. It’s so beautiful.’ At the end, I think people would be more likely to protect it.