The Memory of Fish is a documentary portrait of one man, the wild salmon he loves, and his fight to free a river.
Interview with Writer/Director/Producer Jennifer Galvin
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Thank you. This film has been an incredible journey over the six years of its making. Why did I make it? I like telling stories that have the ability to change the story. The Memory of Fish presents a living case study of one of the biggest markers in US environmental history through a gem of a character, a legend in the Pacific Northwest, Dick Goin. I knew this was a special project, especially since Dick had refused filmmakers in the past to tell his story. And, I knew that I wanted to flex some creative muscles with this project and try something new. I didn’t want it to feel like a linear, talking head documentary – I wanted it to play like a story. I felt strongly that the film had to visually and rhythmically align with Dick’s emotional truth; I saw the film unfolding almost like a fable, like sitting down to read a timeless book.
As a scientist, I try to put faces on environmental issues, like what’s happening to our rivers and fish. I’ve learned that people remember stories more than numbers. But as a storyteller, I know that this is easier said than done. It’s hard to get people to really feel a river. How do you tell a story that makes people feel something for fish, or for a river that they’ve never been to? What does memory – and memory degradation – look like, sound like? How does the audience get inside Dick’s mind to see the swimming giants he remembered and so desperately wanted to see come home? I can still hear Dick talking about the Elwha River, “I still look at it like what it was even though that’s only in my mind’s eye. But you know, what has been can be, I think… I hope.” Finding answers to these questions kept my filmmaking fire stoked.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Seeing as most people cry at the end, this might be a harder sell! But, it’s a good cry. Who doesn’t like to watch personal stories about second chances? The Elwha’s comeback story is one that stays in your bones. This film gets you in-on-under an amazing river world and up close to salmon; this film gets you time spent with the late, great Dick Goin in a breathtaking place, Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s a moving, beautiful story. You know, having a film carried by an older character is a tough sell these days, but audiences are smart and want wise stories. Audience members tell me they deeply love this film. I think it reminds viewers of what they want to do with their own lives, their purpose. It encourages people to take a harder look around them, to slow down, and to never stop fighting for what you love. Dick Goin always said that his key tools in life were observation and persistence. Those are hard things to teach, but documentaries like this one remind us that change takes time and commitment pays off.
By watching Dick’s story run parallel with the story of salmon, people come away understanding how and why rivers and fish matter, and how we’re connected to them. It’s an environmental activist and social change film in its own way, but it doesn’t fit neatly into one documentary box. It won’t ask you to text something to someone at the end or sign a petition, but the story is likely to stay with you long after the credits roll and influence future decision-making.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
I wish Peter Keough at the Boston Globe wrote this about my film, but it certainly captures what people tell me after they see it: "A good documentary, like a good argument, backs up a cogent opinion with facts, analysis, and judgment. A great documentary, like a great essay, transcends the prosaic and achieves the power of poetry." That describes The Memory of Fish. This film is truly a love story. Dick Goin is not your typical “environmentalist.” He was a blue-collar worker and a passionate fisherman who believed he had a debt to the salmon.
Dick’s love story with the Elwha River began in 1937, as a six-year-old boy running from Iowa with his family in the Dirty Thirties. The Goin family settled on the rugged coast of the Olympic Peninsula where they lived off Elwha salmon. He felt the salmon saved his family and so, his life debt to fish grew. In the 1950s, Dick began keeping detailed fishing journals, which scientists came to rely on for answers and institutional baseline data. Dick’s notebooks became cherished sources of wisdom for how the river changed over time, and how it could be fixed.
Some said his journals were worth millions. Salmon are also characters in the film. These fish are incredible and their narrative is the ultimate hero’s journey. You just can’t write this stuff – creatures finding their way home after years of being far away for the sole purpose of spawning and dying where they were born. And, as we see at the end (spoiler alert), in many ways once the salmon return home, Dick’s purpose is fulfilled and he is home to die too. The Memory of Fish is the melding of man, nature, and memory in a true cycle of life tale. My hope was that if audience members connected with Dick and with the salmon, then they’d understand their debt to nature too.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development and production?
You never quite know what you’re signing up for when you start a documentary film, and this one took six years to make. Production surprises abound with real people in real time. The story was shot before, during, and after the historic Elwha River dam removal and during the final years of Dick’s life. So, there was plenty of story evolution. One of the biggest challenges was that there was very little visual evidence, especially moving images, of Dick’s activism. While this story was more about who Dick was than what he did, I still wanted to show what Dick was up against in the decades-long fight to get the dams down. Even today, people around the world are branded as heretics, putting their lives at risk to fight for removing dams, restoring rivers, and protecting fish. There was one key piece of material: a cassette tape of Dick’s infamous 1983 speech when he made a plea to save the Elwha’s wild fish.
My phenomenal editor, Erin Barnett, used the speech audio mixed with poetic imagery to travel through Dick’s memories of giant fish that swam in what was once considered the queen of rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Half way through the production, there was another tough challenge: Dick’s health was fading. His steel-trap mind and deep memory of fish were becoming even more poignant parts of the story. As the Elwha dams were removed, the river became stronger and began remembering its way. However, Dick grew weaker and began losing his memory, as if his mind was unleashed with the river. His clock ticked forward; the river’s ticked back. And as the Elwha flowed free, the salmon remembered their way back to the river to spawn. Like Dick, they too were facing death for the benefit of future generations. On April 12, 2015, Dick passed away at home surrounded by his family. I couldn’t get the film finished in time for him to see it. That’s a personal regret.
The Memory of Fish benefited from the script’s macro and micro approaches all along the way as we crafted a fable-like portrait. We stitched together the threads of man-fish-memory by not necessarily marrying them, but rather letting them inform each other. This wasn’t a classic David vs. Goliath story. Dick was one of many over the years who fought to get the dams down. However, I did want to invite the audience into the life and mind of one man who was part of something much bigger than himself. Visually representing the concept of memory, while also telling the salmon’s side of the story, was a challenge. How do you get inside of Dick’s mind to help viewers re-imagine a river? How do you tell the life cycle of salmon together with the historic dam removal fight? And how do you make it all feel like it belonged in the same movie?
As much as I am not a big fan of narration, this film needed it. I was honored to have the incredible Lili Taylor join the production. Her experienced voice lends authenticity, balancing emotion with grit through the life-death story arc. My team’s collaboration was incredibly strong and brought this cycle of life tale to reality. I’m incredibly grateful to have worked during post-production with Emma Jones, Erin Barnett, Fernanda Rossi, Gil Talmi, Gisela Fullà-Silvestre, Kurt Vincent, Begoña Lopez, Victor Melton, Russ Ricketts, and John Gussman. Our high level of creative camaraderie enabled the delicate balance between an informative biography and a transportive, experimental film.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The feedback has been really positive and rewarding. So far the film has had an award-winning festival run from coast to coast in the US and also in the UK, where it was nominated for a coveted Panda Award, the highest accolade in the wildlife film and TV industry. The best feedback is listening to the reactions of viewers and looking out into the audience during a Q+A. People are totally choked up. Older men are just balling. Younger people tell me they’re going to call their grandparents. It’s really incredible to connect with your audience in this way. But, the most memorable responses have been from Dick’s family, especially from his beloved wife, Marie. Eleven Goin family members were at the film’s world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival and as long as it made them proud, the rest of the film’s success is icing on the cake.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
It’s surprised me that the film clicks with a younger demographic than expected. The film was screened for 300 9th graders in Seattle. I wasn’t sure that they’d like sitting for an hour and watching a film with an older character. Their overwhelming positive response and emotional maturity blew me away. Students and teachers were arm in arm after the film, wiping each other’s tears away. I shouldn’t have underestimated this story’s ability to bridge generations. There is power in uniting the wisdom of elders with the voice of youth, but it is hard to do in this age of instant gratification and challenging relationship gaps between age, story, and technology. But, after all, this is what Dick did best. He was great with tough, unlikely audiences. He was a teacher, a philosopher, a mentor, a citizen scientist – a man who could talk to anyone about the natural world, a true river Yoda.
Screening the film for 9th graders underscored the idea that cultural change happens before political change, and that there’s a need for narratives that inspire connection across generations. This also reaffirmed my own storytelling approach that isn’t formulaic or chasing commercial trends. If we’re talking about problems in the same way all the time, we’re going to get repetitive solutions that become dusty and outdated, rather than getting fresh-eyed perspectives and energized actions. The old adage of changing hearts before you can change minds rings true.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
I’m excited to share this project with your readership. I hope it leads to more people seeing the film and talking about it. Just like the butterfly effect, maybe there’s a salmon effect too.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
The film is just 5 months into its festival run and I hope it screens at more festivals. I’m meeting with sales agents and distributors and am looking for the right partner post-film festival phase. I’m also looking for people and places that want to host educational and community screenings. And of course, additional press is always welcome too.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
One of Dick Goin’s opening lines in the film is, “If you’ve never seen a river — a live river — you’ve really missed something.” I’d like the audience to agree with that statement on some level. With The Memory of Fish, I wanted to create space to think about rivers and salmon, to reframe the way we see them and our connection to them. We often see stories of great migrations for land animals. I wanted to show this side of the salmon’s story too. They are extraordinary migrating animals and I wanted to get as close to them as possible using poetic shots. As someone who has spent more time in oceans than in rivers, working on this film and spending time with Dick and Marie Goin was a tremendous honor. One of my greatest joys was knowing that Dick lived long enough to see the dams come down and the fish come home.
I hope the audience feels this way too so that the life lessons of Dick Goin can live on in them, no matter what cause drives someone. I hope the film’s legacy aligns with Dick’s and inspires a deeper understanding of the relationships between people and nature, and why keeping rivers wild matters. I’d also like it to be impactful in supporting the missions of organizations like American Rivers and Trout Unlimited, and catalyzing more engaged scholarship, from elementary school through college, around environmental leadership. The aim is to have this film shared widely so that many people, and many more places, can benefit from this story. Audiences can look to the wisdom of the past to build knowledge of the future.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Can a river really be restored after a century of damming? What’s the secret to staying committed to a cause over a lifetime? And, how do you restore what you can’t remember? These were the North Star questions while making The Memory of Fish and they continue to be conversation starters around this cautionary tale. Across the US and around the world, people are struggling with the realities of unhealthy rivers and depressed fish stocks, feeling the impacts of coastal degradation and climate change, and debating dam removal – and dam construction. Do an online search for maps of river basins in the US alone. The visualization of how rivers connect us all will blow your mind.
Would you like to add anything else?
People seem to like my NPR interview “How One Man – and His Notebooks – Revived a River.” Listen via: www.thememoryoffish.com/blog/2016/8/4/npr-living-lab-interview
Composer Gil Talmi was interviewed about The Memory of Fish soundtrack by Seattle’s famed Steve Reeder at King FM. Listen here: https://soundcloud.com/classicalkingfm/composer-gil-talmi-and-the-memory-of-fish
There’s another fun interview I did with Gil Talmi (composer) and Gisela Fullà-Silvestre (sound designer) called “Sonic Worlds of Man, Memory + Nature.” Read it here: www.thememoryoffish.com/blog/2016/6/7/sonic-worlds-of-man-memory-nature
The film’s soundtrack is now available on iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. Buy the soundtrack on iTunes: https://t.co/mYHhBPTs85
For all screenings, distribution, press, speaking engagements, questions, and other inquiries regarding The Memory of Fish, please contact:
Jennifer Galvin – Director, Producer
What are the key creatives developing or working on now?
In the documentary space, I’m developing stories mostly around the themes of environmental justice, climate change, water, disease, and citizen science. And, I’m thinking about how to tell these kinds of stories using immersive technology, like AR and VR. I’m also producing and writing narrative scripts – from stories about human migration to sports icons. I like working in both fiction and non-fiction. A good story is a good story.
Interview: November 2016
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The Memory of Fish
The Memory of Fish is a documentary portrait of one man, the wild salmon he loves, and his fight to free a river.
Director: Jennifer Galvin, Sachi Cunnningham
Producer: Jennifer Galvin
Writer: Jennifer Galvin, Erin Barnett, Fernanda Rossi
About the writer, director and producer:
A scientist and a filmmaker, Dr. Jennifer Galvin is internationally recognized for her work at the intersection of environment, health, media, and story. She runs reelblue, LLC – an independent film production and media company based in New York. More about Jen at www.reelblue.net and www.jengalvin.com
Key cast: Lili Taylor (narrator)
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists):
I am looking for sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, and journalists.
The Heinz Endowments, Patagonia, Theodore Gordon Flyfishers, NY Community Trust, Sunlight Time Fund.
Made in association with:
Where will it be shown in the next month?
The film will screen next on November 13th at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival in St. Petersburg, FL. For more information, visit www.thememoryoffish.com/watch/#details
Release date: May 2016; World Premiere, Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).