As part of the crew that has been working on the coastal dune lakes documentary in Walton County this past year, I am pleased to say that we are finally finished. This documentary, “Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast,” will be shown on public television stations throughout the state of Florida in April and will premiere on stations across the nation in July. Even though this story will be aired on TV throughout the United States, the documentary got its start in small-town Seaside.
In the fall of 2013, Elam Stoltzfus (my father), received funding from the St. Joe Community Foundation to produce a documentary about the coastal dune lakes in Walton County. In an effort to fully understand the depth of the story, Elam went to a Coastal Dune Lakes Advisory Board meeting to talk to the board members about who he should interview for the documentary. During his discussions with them, board member Lynn Nesmith told him about the Escape to Create program in Seaside. She described it as a program that offers artists a chance to stay in Seaside for a month to work on artistic projects. She recommended he apply since Seaside is perfectly located smack-dab in the middle of dune lake country.
Elam applied to the program, was accepted, and spent January and February of last year as an artist-in-residence in Seaside. One of the components of the Escape to Create program is interacting with other artists, many having never been to this part of Florida. As north Florida neophytes offering a fresh perspective on the region, their conversations with Elam sparked vibrant and novel ideas about how to capture the dune lakes story. During his residency, he interviewed 11 people; these voices would come to form the core of the documentary itself.
Along with time spent connecting with people, Elam also worked on capturing images and video of the surrounding lakes, particularly Western Lake, an easy 10-minute bike ride from Seaside. However, last winter was particularly cold and this proved to be a challenge for filming outside.
On one cold January morning my father messaged me:
“Began at daybreak by documenting the ice covered outfall of Western Lake at Grayton Beach. OMG it was soooo cold. 26 degrees is cold on the beach — it was the Grayton Tundra! I had a pair of ski gloves and a heavy Carhartt coat, but I was not able to stay warm. The batteries of the camera died due to the cold weather.”
After the batteries thawed out, he was able to capture some stunning images of the frozen outfall and ice crystals on the sand, rare occurrences for Florida.
Later that spring, we interviewed the founder of Seaside, Robert Davis. During the interview, which lasted for about an hour, Davis talked about a whole range of topics. One of my favorite quotes of his, and it made it into the final cut of the film, is not about architecture or development, but about our relationship with nature:
“When I am here, I am relaxed. Particularly when I am on the beach, or walking along the edge of the lake, or out in a canoe, I really feel a much stronger connection to my parents and grandparents and other ancestors who are no longer walking around on this planet, but are very much a part of my life.”
Through long summer days, we continued to film sunrises and sunsets. Our crew chased rain clouds and rainbows and worked tirelessly to film elusive beach mice and turtle releases. In August, Elam and I traveled to Australia to document dune lakes found there. It was an intense few months, but by October we had amassed more than 13,000 images, hundreds of hours of video, and almost 30 interviews. It was time to start editing the film. After I finished writing the script, I began work on a companion coffee table book featuring the dune lakes. Cynthia Barnett, one of Dad’s fellow artists at Escape to Create, agreed to write the foreword.
Over the past few months, we continued to edit the film and the book. The first drafts were rough but, over time, we continued to smooth out the sharp edges and eventually beautiful and smooth works of art emerged.
After much work, we have created a documentary and book of which I’m proud. Many people have helped us along the way, but I am especially grateful for the robust support of the Seaside community that helped nurture this project and give it such depth and richness.