Benjamin Greené's career as a documentary filmmaker began while he was musing on a rooftop.
The 29-year-old Bellingham resident recently saw his first effort as a solo director, "Survival Prayer," chosen for one of eight documentary feature slots at the prestigious Sarasota Film Festival in Florida, where the film will show April 12 and 14.
"Survival Prayer" is a 70-minute account of Haida Nation life on Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) off the British Columbia coast.
The film also is scheduled for April festival showings in Ashland, Ore., Cleveland and Oberlin, Ohio. "Survival Prayer" showed last fall in Vancouver, B.C.; Camden, Maine; and Bellingham.
Greené, who grew up on Bainbridge Island, is a 2012 graduate of Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School.
Question: What was your reaction to the news from Sarasota?
Answer: I was very grateful to get the news from Tom Hall, the program director at Sarasota. It's the most prestigious festival for "Survival Prayer." He said he was deeply moved by the film.
Q: How did you get the financing?
A: I was thrilled to get a grant of $4,000 from the Suquamish Tribe. I had helped make two documentaries before; "Bury Me in Redwood Country," with co-director Benj Cameron, and "Have I Got a Witness," which was a post-Katrina group project in New Orleans by students from Oberlin College (from which Greené graduated with a major in neuroscience).
Q: How did you become interested in the Haida?
A: I read a fascinating book, "The Golden Spruce," by John Vaillant, about a 100-foot tall, 300-year-old tree that was cut down by an ecoterrorist who disappeared. I was really grabbed by his description of the place.
The vast majority of the film takes place in two villages on opposite ends of Graham Island, Old Massett and Skidegate, and also on Moresby Island.
Q: Did you make more than one trip?
A: We filmed in fall 2010 and spring 2011. The film is framed by a woman older than 80, Naanii Mary Swanson, who is one of the last fluent speakers of the Haida language. She launches the film when she speaks (there are subtitles) and forgets one word, the word for "east," while telling the story of how the first people were discovered on the beach in a clam shell.
Q: How did you come up with such compelling scenes?
A: It's a slow, poignant film. There are atmospheric scenes as I tried to recreate the atmosphere of harvesting and processing food. The film ends with Naanii finishing her story and people in the village talking about how wonderful it is to have such a feast.
I did not start the film with a vision and end it with a vision realized. Rather, I started with an inspiration and through the process of being there and talking with people, the film was born.
Q: What began your film odyssey?
A: When I was a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania I was sitting on the roof of my apartment and wrote down 50 documentary films I wanted to make. I cut the list to eight - one was looking up at tall trees and hearing bells. That became "Bury Me in Redwood Country."
I'm interested in making more films about the light of the human spirit. I go by inspiration and ecstatic moments, moments that transcend the film itself and reveal the human spirit.
Details about "Survival Prayer" are at survivalprayer.com.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.