Bay Journal

Reflections on a ‘Beautiful’ premiere

After inspiring debut of new film on Bay's crabs, a reminder from Flint about basing policy on public health and environment

  • By Rona Kobell on March 24, 2016
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A blue crab clings to underwater grass in a scene from Beautiful Swimmers Revisited. (Dave Harp)

More than 300 people attended the premiere of Beautiful Swimmers Revisited last weekend at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital. So many people wanted to come, in fact, that the film sold out online — and tickets only became available when cold, rainy weather dissuaded some moviegoers from leaving home.

The Bay Journal produced the film. Sandy-Cannon Brown directed it. Bay Journal photographer David Harp shot much of it, in stills and video, making his first foray into feature film cinematography. Tom Horton was the star, taking viewers on his skiff through the marshes of Smith and Tangier Islands and along the hardened shorelines closer to Annapolis.

This film is the Bay Journal’s first. Our whole staff is incredibly proud of it. Harp just turned 69 and Horton is 70, but they seem to be at the height of their creativity now, pushing themselves to new endeavors. It’s inspiring to this (somewhat) younger person, and it makes me want to also push in new directions.

The film revisits many of the people and places that William Warner chronicled in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Beautiful Swimmers. Warner wrote the book in 1976, at a time when crabbers had almost no restrictions on their harvest and crabs were so plentiful that few scientists bothered to study them.

Today, of course, there are size limits, hour limits, requirements for cull rings, regulations to report catches and other rules. Scientists, including Tom Miller of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, spend their careers researching the iconic crustaceans. Miller is featured in the film, along with Anson “Tuck” Hines of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Rom Lipcius of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and the hard-working young scientists counting crabs for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ annual winter dredge survey.

Horton leads viewers through environmental changes in the waterway, and introduces us not only to some of the crabbers Warner met but also to some younger guys trying to get into the business. They are smart, thoughtful crabbers, and they wonder how long the waterways will continue to nurture these beautiful swimmers.

At Saturday’s screening, Caroline Gabel, president and CEO of the Shared Earth Foundation and chair of the festival’s board, called the trio of filmmakers “most worthy successors” to Warner. His children were in the audience and supported the film.

Those of us lucky enough to work with Harp and Horton agree with that, and the film is exquisite. What stayed with me after, though, was not so much the story of the crab, but the story of the pollution that has helped to diminish the species and its habitat. It is not just blue crabs that are suffering, but many marine and human species.

As if to underscore the point, my 10-year-old daughter and I took a cab to Union Station and I heard a familiar voice on the car’s radio. The voice was bold. It was scolding. It boomed righteous indignation and it talked about water and the environment.

It took me a few seconds to realize the voice belonged to Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He was excoriating Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, over his failure to protect thousands of children from lead-tainted water in Flint. (You can watch it here)

“It seems like there are two basic possibilities. Either your chief of staff told you about these concerns and you did nothing, or he didn’t tell you and you are an absentee governor,” Cummings said.

We could hear the anger in his voice. I had already explained the Flint crisis to my daughter, so she listened and nodded. But I wasn’t sure if the cab driver just kept the radio tuned to news all day, as background noise, or if he was actually paying attention. I did note, though, that he had an accent, so I asked him where he was from.

“Ethiopia,” he said.

I had written a thesis in college on how the Ethiopian government had starved its own people as well as the bureaucratic machinations that perpetuated the famine. I asked him if he could believe that the radio story he was hearing was about the United States.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “In this country? In Michigan? Unbelievable.”

And yet, over and over again, when we fail to consider the environment and public health in our policy decisions, we do a disservice to people, to crabs, to striped bass and oysters and all the other sea creatures that make our Chesapeake what it is. It’s one of the lessons of the brilliant film that Cannon-Brown, Harp and Horton made, and the one that will stay with me for a long time.

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Here is the schedule for April screenings of Beautiful Swimmers Revisited:


April 13
Salisbury University
Henson Hall, Room 242
Salisbury, MD
7 p.m. 
Free

April 15
Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth 
447 Race Street,
Cambridge, MD
6:30 p.m.
$20 admission/cash bar
Contact: Beth Ann Lynch, beth5846@yahoo.com

April 19
Chesapeake Biological Lab
Science for Citizens Series
Bernie Fowler Bldg.
142 Williams St.
Solomons, MD
7 p.m.
Free

April 20
Midshore Riverkeepers and Eastern Shore Land Conservancy
Avalon Theatre, Easton, MD
6:30 p.m.
$15 admission /cash bar

April 26
Maryland Public Television, 9 p.m.

About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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