Nov. 14--When he embarked on his documentary "Dead in the Water" in 2013 as a cinematic army of one, David Wittkower operated with the sense that he was capturing, if not the final act, then certainly the denouement of the Gloucester fishing crisis.

He had, on visits to his native Rockport from his home in Los Angeles, seen the atrophying of the once-proud commercial fishing fleet and decided it was a Gloucester story worth telling.

Little did the veteran filmmaker know of the national and global nature of what he was witnessing along the waterfront of America's oldest commercial fishing seaport.

"It's a much bigger problem than I once thought," Wittkower said by phone from Los Angeles on Wednesday. "I knew there were problems there, but I had no idea it was so much more global."

His largely Gloucester-centric film, "Dead in the Water," is set for its public premiere this Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Rockport High School auditorium.

"I'm very happy with it and I hope it does well," Wittkower said. "It's not just the fishermen I want to see it. I want other people, who know nothing about the fishing industry, to see it. That's really who it's for."

As he completed the film, Wittkower produced a trailer with scenes providing a quick tutorial on the film's subject and a glimpse of many of the familiar Gloucester fishermen and stakeholders enlisted to tell the tale.

"I posted the trailer of the film to some fishing groups on Facebook in England," Wittkower said. "I was getting emails back from people saying, 'That's the same problem we're having here. Your film shows the very same problem we're having here. We don't see we'll be fishing ourselves in the next five years'."

Cape Ann faces, places

The film features interviews with a number of Gloucester fishermen, such as Paul Theriault, Al Cottone and Paul Vitale, as well as stakeholders such as Angela Sanfilippo of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association and Northeast Seafood Coalition executives Vito Giacalone and Jackie Odell.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter also is interviewed in the film.)

The documentary also features plenty of contentious scenes from New England Fishery Management Council meetings and exquisite aerial shots of Gloucester and the surrounding waters.

What it does not feature are any representatives from the for-profit companies that provide mandated at-sea monitors -- they refused to even speak with Wittkower on the record -- or NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard or Amy Martins, who runs NOAA's fishery monitoring and research division.

Bullard and Martins are absent largely through a battle of legal releases. Bullard and Martins declined to sign the releases for their interviews to be used. NOAA countered with its own release that Wittkower found too restrictive in what he could or could not say in the film.

Local backing

The film not only was extensively shot around Gloucester, but much of the money needed to finish the project came from local public events and local individuals -- Sanfilippo and former Mayor John Bell are credited as producers -- and organizations such as the Fishing Partnership Support Services and the foundation directed by local benefactor Linzee Coolidge.

Wittkower was asked if he was concerned that accepting fundraising from some of the subjects of the film might be viewed as a lapse of objectivity.

"No, because the good thing about John and Angela is they both said right up front, 'We don't know anything about filmmaking. We don't know anything about your business and we're going to leave that up to you to do'," Wittkower said. "Other than a very few people, I don't know where the money came from because I wasn't part of the fundraising efforts. I was out here and Angela and John Bell did all the fundraising back there. People who gave money, I have no idea who they were."

Well, except in at least two cases, where he was personally approached by fishermen with offers of financial support because they appreciated someone shedding light on the increasingly imperiled state of the city's commercial fishing industry.

"I had a couple fishermen come up and say 'I really support what you're doing. I'm going to donate this amount of money'," Wittkower said. "So, I didn't feel bad about that. If they could afford to do it and they were willing to do it, I think they believed in the project enough to support it."

Making the sell

Wittkower's next task -- perhaps the hardest of all -- is to try to sell the film to a distribution company, a network (such as HBO, Discovery or Showtime) or to the emerging streaming companies -- such as Netflix and Amazon -- now vying for original content.

"There are two ways of getting to Netflix now," said Wittkower, who has 14 previous documentaries on his resume. "One is you have to submit it from an agent or PR person. The second way is to win it at a film festival. I've been trying with Amazon. It's the same type of thing: they don't accept unsolicited material anymore. It's a lot harder."

Wittkower said he has entered the film in about 30 film festivals in the United States and a few more in Great Britain. He also hopes to assemble a road show to show the film up and down the New England coast.

"I called up some local theaters in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire to do what we're sort of doing in Rockport, which is show the film, have some dialogue between the public, the fishermen and local politicians to see if we can't change some rules a little bit to keep people going, to keep the tradition and the fishermen going," he said.

Paula Cole sings

This will mark his second premiere in Rockport. One of his previous documentaries -- on the mission of the Coast Guard in San Francisco -- premiered successfully at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in 2014. He hopes the home field advantage continues with "Dead in the Water."

"There's no better place to premiere the film than your own hometown," he said.

Rockport has provided him with another advantage: the film's theme song "Gloucester Harbor Shore" was written and performed by fellow Rockporter Paula Cole, who was a couple years behind Wittkower at Rockport High School.

He reached out to Cole through various channels and she agreed to provide the song for the film -- gratis, at least for now.

"If I make some money on it, I'll pay her and I'll be more than happy to give her what she wants for the song when I make some money on it," Wittkower said. "So it's very important that I sell the film."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.


What: Public premiere of David Wittkower's largely Gloucester-centric film, "Dead in the Water."

When: Saturday, Nov. 18, at 3 p.m.

Where: John Lane Auditorium at Rockport High School, 24 Jerden's Lane, Rockport.

How much: $20 at the door, or in advance by calling 978-282-4847. A portion of proceeds goes to the Fisherman's Fund.


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