Great Lakes and Great Films: 9th Annual Thunder Bay International Film Festival

By Haley Randall

January 2021

Temperatures may be cold in Michigan, but things are just heating up in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary as we prepare for the annual Thunder Bay International Film Festival!

The only thing better than a great film is sharing it with friends, family, and community members, and that’s what the Thunder Bay International Film Festival is all about. The independent film festival, which is produced in partnership with the International Ocean Film Festival, highlights films centered on the ocean and Great Lakes. This year’s event will take place virtually for the first time and will be held from January 20-31, 2021.

Members of the public can purchase tickets and learn more about the film festival by visiting Friends of Thunder Bay or by contacting Stephanie Gandulla at Tickets can be purchased for either single screenings or the entire festival.

Though the Thunder Bay International Film Festival typically takes place at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, Michigan, this year’s virtual setting will make it easier than ever for people from all over the globe to take part in this educational and exciting event. Thunder Bay will continue to connect audiences to America’s ocean and Great Lakes waters through live film streamings, interviews, and Q&A panels featuring local filmmakers, scientists, and stewards.

Thunder Bay International Film Festival welcomes submissions from filmmakers of all ages and experience levels, featuring both professional and student submissions. Competitors in this year’s Student Film Competition were asked to share their connections to fresh water with the theme #FreshWaterIs – a fitting topic since the Great Lakes contain approximately 95 percent of the surface fresh water in the United States.

The Power of Film

Finalists from the Student Film Competition are honored at the 2020 Thunder Bay International Film Festival in the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center theatre. Photo: Nick Smock

Professional and student films include themes of conservation, advocacy, and sustainability, and are often designed to make a lasting impact on viewers. Stephanie Gandulla, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s Film Festival Coordinator and Maritime Archaeologist, says that the festival is a great way to bring the community together, generate awareness, and inspire individual and collective action on important issues.

“I have personally witnessed people watching a film and then say, ‘I didn’t realize what I do here in Alpena could have a positive effect on the life of a marine mammal in the Gulf of Mexico,’” says Gandulla. “They’re inspired to take specific actions, like foregoing single-use plastics and choosing sustainable seafood.”

Even the mayor of Alpena, Michigan, Matt Waligora, has been called to action, inspired by films from past Thunder Bay International Film Festivals. Waligora has supported the festival since its inception, and says that it has been impactful for the community in a plethora of ways. Waligora believes that awareness about issues in sustainability generated by the festival have played a role in the foundation of youth groups like Plastics For the Love of Alpena Today (FLOAT) 4-H Club in Alpena.

Great Lakes Maritime Heritage center sign
The Thunder Bay International Film Festival is typically held at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in picturesque Alpena, Michigan. This year, the festival will be held in a virtual setting. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA
Theater of people looking at a screen.
Film is a powerful tool to bring people together on issues that affect us all. Holding the 2021 event virtually will allow us to reach and inspire even more people to think about their relationship to water resources. Photo: Tane Casserley/NOAA

Plastics FLOAT aims to bring attention to single-use plastics, and invited Waligora to join their efforts to eliminate the use of plastic grocery bags in the city four years ago. Since then, Waligora has been working with the group, local grocery store owners, and the Michigan legislature to overcome the challenges of instituting a ban on plastic bags.

The topics covered by films in the festival have also made a lasting impression on the mayor. He’s seen a number of films at the festival over the years, but the one that stands out most vividly in his memory discussed the issue of microplastics – miniscule bits of plastic debris that come from many sources – including larger plastic debris that breaks down into smaller pieces. These tiny bits of plastic often end up in Great Lakes and ocean waters, which Mayor Waligora was not aware of until learning about the issue at the film festival. “Microplastics are something that we just don’t see everyday in our lives, and we don’t think about the fact that we contribute to that problem one way or another . . . that had a big impact on me,” Waligora says.

The mayor adds that Alpena is “a completely different community than we were before Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary [was established in 2000],” and that the sanctuary and the film festival have really put Alpena on the map. “It’s definitely made a huge difference in everything that goes on here, in terms of the economy, bringing in visitors, and being exposed to the world . . . and the film festival is a big part of that.”

Highlighting Local Talent

Jacque Edwards (left) and Meaghan Gass (right) enjoy opening night of Thunder Bay International Film Festival 2018 where their film Big Five Dive premiered. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Waligora also enjoys seeing what local filmmakers produce, and the festival has inspired a great deal of local and regional filmmaking. One such local filmmaker is Jason Whalen, a professional filmmaker and co-founder of Grand Rapids-based media production company Fauna Creative. He has been involved with the festival for years now, but had a somewhat unconventional path to his involvement in underwater filmmaking.

“One of the first films that I played at the Thunder Bay International Film Festival featured underwater footage that I, myself, did not capture. We hired those shots out and had a diver shoot for us, but in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be doing that,’” Whalen says. “The festival was a catalyst for me getting off my butt and getting scuba-certified."

Diving near a shipwreck
A diver captures underwater images of the wreck of the steamer Florida in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Doug Kesling/NOAA

Whalen knew that the Thunder Bay International Film Festival brought together a great community of people with a variety of diving resources, and it was Gandulla who finally convinced him to take the plunge and become a certified diver. “Diving is something that Stephanie encouraged me to do because it’s really fun and fulfilling, and by the next year’s film festival I had professionally dove in three of the five Great Lakes and was able to show off my underwater work at the festival.” Whalen will be featuring a few of Fauna Creative’s films at this year’s festival, including “The Gift of the Wild” and “Coreyon,” which focus on topics like land preservation and fisheries in the Great Lakes region.

“One of the most valuable functions of this festival is demonstrating through the power of film that we truly are all connected. What people do on the coast affects us in the Great Lakes, and what we do in the Great Lakes affects the entire planet and our ocean,” says Gandulla. Whalen couldn’t agree more: “The great thing about these films is that you can always make a connection through water.”

Haley Randall is a Recreation & Tourism intern with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

"His Boots Are Empty"- First place and People’s Choice Award winner of the Thunder Bay International Student Film Festival in 2020. Produced by AHS Films. Directed by Nick Lusardi.

“#Biodiversity is Unity” - First place and People's Choice Award winner of the Thunder Bay International Film Festival in 2017. Produced by DyShauna Rutherford.

Tune in to the Thunder Bay International Film Festival every January!