Hi everyone! Here is the next in my series of interviews with New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2012 filmmakers. Bruce Byker James’s short documentary film They’re in the River investigates the connections among animals, people, and the culture of the Delaware River by following the fishermen and scientists who are committed to reviving the stock of a migratory fish known as the American shad.
Nigrin: Your documentary film They’re in the River is about the American shad. Tells us a bit more about your film.
Byker James: The American shad's migration numbers were at one time in the millions, playing an important role in the history of places like Philadelphia even before Europeans arrived, but they aren't very well-known today, partially because of their much smaller numbers, but also because of the less direct link between people and the organisms we rely on to sustain us. In the case of the fishermen and scientists in my film, that connection has been renewed, though not necessarily for sustenance. There's something special about the American shad that inspires devotion. Fishermen spend huge amounts of time going after American shad and many spend just as much time talking about and researching this fish. Steve Meserve continues to run his family's shad-fishing business regardless of the catch. He's a computer programmer by trade, but when the shad are in the river, there's no place he'd rather be than at his family's fishing operation, maintaining boats and nets and haul-seining for shad. The scientist I follow in the film, Michael Hendricks, runs a hatchery that raises shad to stock in Pennsylvania's rivers but I first met him on the river, fishing with his son in an entirely different way than I'd seen anyone else go after them. Another fisherman in the film, Tom McDermott, dreams of the day he could fish for shad in the river closest to his home, the Susquehanna, but in the meantime drives two hours each way to fish in the Delaware.
Nigrin: How long did this documentary take to make and why did you decide to make it?
Byker James: I started shooting for this documentary in the Spring of 2008 and finished in the summer of 2010. Editing happened sporadically from then until Winter 2012. I had read the book, Founding Fish, by John McPhee the summer before I started this project. Before then I had never heard of the American shad, but the stories he told of people's devotion to this fish intrigued me. The other thing I find exciting about shad is the idea of their migratory journey. They live in the ocean for 4-5 years before coming back to the same river they were born in. As they enter the river their bodies undergo a physical change that makes them tolerant to fresh water. Then they swim up to 300 miles inland while eating nothing (or almost nothing, depending on whom you believe) to mate. Of course, to do this they need a river without dams or with very good fish ladders around dams. While 400 years ago just about any river on the East Coast would have fit the bill, today the Delaware river is one of the best places for shad because there are no dams until you get almost to the source of the river in the Catskills of New York. Beyond nerdy shad facts, though, I wanted to make a film that would require me to do things I really like to do—get up early in the morning to explore a really beautiful river and meet interesting people. It was also a fun challenge to shoot in remote locations and pull off difficult shots, like the long steadicam shot at the beginning of the film and some underwater footage I shot both wading and from a boat drifting down the river.
They’re in the River will be screened as part of a program of short films on Friday-October 5, 2012 at 7 p.m.
Voorhees Hall #105 (Near the corner of George Street and Hamilton Street), 71 Hamilton Street/College Avenue Campus, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Information: www.njfilmfest.com or (848) 932-8482
Free Movie Posters will be given out to the first 30 patrons prior to this New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2012 Screening!
The Bench - Gabriel Ash (Plan les Ouates, Switzerland)
This silent short is a film fable reduced to its crystalline essence. Five minutes, four acts, three characters, and a surprise ending. 2011; 5 min.
Broken Wing - Amos Sussigan (Burbank, California)
In this heartfelt short animation, a boy uses a Rubiks cube to motivate his sad friend to see the brighter side of life. 2012; 6 min. With an in-person appearance by director Amos Sussigan!
The Grand Design - Samuel Bartlett (Sydney, Australia)
A metaphysics student must decide between sacrificing his own life or the life of a stranger. 2012; 9 min.
One Brooklyn Boat - Megan Hessenthaler (Brooklyn, New York)
A few short blocks from the teeming sidewalks of New York City, a man lives on a houseboat built as an experiment in urban sustainability. He builds fires for heat and catches rainwater for showers. This is the story of a boat and the man who chose to remove himself from the rat-race, to strike a balance between urban and rural habitation. 2011; 9 min. With an in-person appearance by director Megan Hessenthaler!
99% Solution – Leigha Cohen (Lawrenceville, New Jersey)
This insightful documentary connects the dots between the world’s water crisis, global warming, and the privatization of water worldwide, to local water battles in New Jersey and the relentless expansion of hydraulic fracking. A call to save our most precious and increasingly endangered resource: the water without which we cannot survive. 2012; 21 min. With an in-person appearance by director Leigha Cohen!
They're in the River - Bruce Byker James (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
This short documentary film investigates the connections among animals, people, and the culture of the Delaware River by following the fishermen and scientists who are committed to reviving the stock of a migratory fish known as the American shad. Spending most of its life in the ocean, this largest member of the herring family, remarkably, comes back to its river of birth when it is 4-6 years old. The spring migration of the American shad was a large part of the economy of the Delaware Valley as recently as the early twentieth century, when overfishing and pollution began to have a devastating impact on the fish and the river. 2012; 30 min. With an in-person appearance by director Bruce Byker James!