2017 Salt Spring Film Festival - Filmmaker Interview: The Memory of Fish

The following article was written by Patricia Lockie as part of a series of articles about filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival on March 3-5, 2017. Filmmaker Jennifer Galvin will be attending the festival and leading a discussion about the film following the screening. The Filmmaker series is sponsored by Stonehouse Bed and Breakfast.
The Memory of Fish

Dr. Jennifer Galvin, scientist and filmmaker, has won international recognition for work that comfortably straddles environmental health, media and storytelling. Galvin holds a doctorate of science from the Harvard School of Public Health. Her documentary, "The Memory of Fish", tells the story of Dick Goin, a man whose life since boyhood was inextricably bound to the life cycles of wild salmon in the Elwha River in Washington's Olympic Peninsula . Over the decades, Goin, a pulp mill worker, master fisherman and salmon advocate watched as salmon numbers steadily dropped, assiduously recording his findings in meticulously kept fishing logs. Those logs and Goin's encyclopedic memory of the life of the river would furnish critical proof in the battle for the biggest dam removal project in U.S.history.
Patricia Lockie recently interviewed Jennifer Galvin for the Film Festival.

Why did Dick Goin's story appeal to you as a filmmaker?

I'm a filmmaker and I'm also a scientist, focusing most of my career on the connections between environmental health and human health - and more specifically, on the connections between ocean and human health. As a storyteller, I look for ways to put faces on scientific data with the goal of making environmental issues more understandable and personal. The chance to tell the Elwha River's comeback story through a singular, wonderful character like Dick Goin was not something I could pass up. This was a rare opportunity. I stuck with this project for 6 years - before, during and after the dams came down - and made sure this story was told.

You've said that you came to an understanding of the value of the story as "a problem solving tool". Would you expand on that a little.

I've always thought of science and art as connected. Through my work as a scientist who worked at the intersection of global health and the environment, I came to recognize first-hand the social power of storytelling. A good story can bring people together to solve problems, especially when the story hits on the emotional and cultural unions in the problems we face. So, I decided to put myself into play professionally by using my background in science to inform storytelling. Of course, it's about making films for people to watch, to be entertained, to laugh and cry, but it's also about moving people, prompting people to participate in a cause, inspiring people to take a closer look and a deeper dive in what's around them. I love talking with people who don't talk like me. I don't want my films to preach to the choir, so you can tell why I was attracted to Dick Goin's story. He was an unlikely environmentalist. His character resonates with people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists or scientists or activists. The film is playing in locations far away from where the story takes place in Washington State. That's an incredible opportunity for realizing that your audience members are also problem-solving collaborators deployed far away from the Elwha River, and that they can transfer the life lessons of Dick Goin to where they are and to whatever issues they are facing in their own lives. This is a powerful engine of change. I believe that storytelling can move viewers to step beyond simply being aware of an issue to actually doing something about it.

You referred to Dick Goin as a "citizen scientist". What did you mean by that?

Well, Dick Goin didn't go to school to be a scientist. He had a high school diploma, but it didn't matter. He could run circles round Ph.Ds in biology and ecology when it came to rivers and fish. He learned by doing, by seeing, by listening to the river. He was a citizen scientist, a nonprofessional scientist, who was an active citizen of his place. He paid attention to his surroundings and he didn't just keep observations about the Elwha River, and so many other rivers, in his head. He wrote down what he learned every day. He was collecting data in his fishing journals and he didn't even realize it. He would never have called it "data collection" or "scientific study". It was only after years of writing in his journals that he noticed a changing pattern with salmon. More importantly, after decades of writing, he held the evidence to prove it. Scientists would tell me that Dick's steel-trap memory and his journals were invaluable for answering questions that no textbook or academic article covered. After all, how do we restore something that we can't remember or never documented? Dick's role as citizen scientist painted a picture of the shifting baselines of salmon and enabled people to reimagine a second chance for the Elwha River,and why its recovery was so important.

Was it always clear to you what the narrative arc of this film would be?

It was clear from the beginning that the story of the Elwha River dam removal was a big one. This story had been in the making for decades and it looked like the dams were FINALLY going to come down. There was plenty of material to make a movie about the dam removal itself, but other filmmakers were doing that. I wanted to weave the storylines of man and fish together, set against the backdrop of the biggest dam removal project in U.S. history. When you add the main characters of man and fish, there were many different directions that the story could be pulled. After a while, though, the story reveals itself and you follow the lead of Dick's emotional truth. The biggest surprise was that Dick would become ill. His wisdom and memory would become an even more poignant part of the story as his life story and the life story of the salmon ran in tandem. It still haunts me that he didn't live the see the film finished. That was tough.

On a personal level, what does "The Memory of Fish" mean to you now?

This film was truly a labor of love and it's a love story at its core. So, inside and out - I have a strong personal connection to this piece. Being able to spend time with Dick Goin and to be entrusted to tell his story was an absolute honor. This film is also a requiem of sorts - for fish, rivers ,and people - but, as well, it looks to the future through Dick and the promise of a second chance for the Elwha River.

What did you learn from Dick Goin?

I could talk for a long time about this, but in simple terms it's that observation and persistence pay off. Those were his two key words of inspiration: observation and persistence. The hope is that the life lessons of Dick Goin live on in the audience. We need more environmental success stories that remind us that our health is connected to the health of the natural world and that it's worth fighting for, even if it takes a lifetime to do so. The Elwha's story begins again in every viewer.

"The Memory of Fish" can be seen at the Film Festival on Saturday March 4 at 10:00 am in the Erskine screening room. Learn more about the film.

Read the full film festival program and guide.

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By Salt Spring Film Festival

The 21st annual Salt Spring Film Festival runs from February 28 to March 1, 2020. Our monthly "Best of the Fests" film series continues at ArtSpring on October 16 and November 13, 2019.

February 20, 2017 3:00 PM

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