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Documenting the waves of ownership

Student produced documentary honors efforts of former captain, wins N.C. Filmmaker award

by Marlena Chertock, March 16, 2010
President Lyndon B Johnson, center, addresses foreign ambassadors on the upper deck of the Sequoia. The presidential yacht was used as a gathering place, a venue for banquets, a place for discussion and another safe place for the president. The yacht is now privately owned and can be rented out to the public. Photo from sequoiayacht.com.

An Elon University student-produced documentary won the N.C. Filmmaker award at the 2010 Carolina Film and Video Festival in Greensboro. The group made a documentary of the U.S.S. Sequoia and Capt. Giles Kelly.

The adventures of filming

The Potomac River stretches out in front. Gripping cameras with one hand and bracing themselves on the boat with the other, they try to get steady shots.

This was a normal day for one group in communications professor David Copeland’s 2009 senior seminar class. Interactive media  student Conor Britain and 2009 alumni Katy Branston, Chris Ford, Timothy Johnson, Emily Kamischke, Lauren Limerick, Kelly Murtaugh and Lizzie Napier filmed the documentary in Washington, D.C., over fall break of 2008.

“We planned in September 2008, shot in October 2008 and edited until we finished in April 2009,” Johnson said.

This took the project past the duration of the capstone class.

“We were lucky because our professor put faith (in us) to get the project done,” Britain said. “It was a big thing for him to grant us the trust and the permission to get the job done.”

In the idea stage

The group was interested in making a documentary.

“It just so happened that we had a great subject from the get-go when Lauren Limerick told us about her grandfather’s efforts of trying to save the once-proud presidential yacht Sequoia,” Johnson said.

Limerick said communications associate dean Connie Book encouraged her to pitch the idea in the senior seminar class.

“Dr. Book was an invaluable advocate of our project from start to finish,” Limerick said.

Photo from sequoiayacht.com.

The Sequoia was a presidential yacht from the Hoover administration until President Jimmy Carter. The boat was used to host foreign diplomats or for respite when presidents needed to get out of the White House.

In 1977 Carter sold the yacht at a private auction. Britain said the idea of having a yacht was a little too extravagant at that time.

After going through a period of private ownership, where the boat was used for commercial purposes, the boat was brought up by a trust in the early 1980s, according to Johnson.

“That’s when Kelly was hired,” Britain said. “He was its captain for five years, really got to know it well.”

Kelly was a former navy man and U.S. foreign service officer. He was hired in 1983 to captain the ship and bring it on a cross-country tour to raise interest and money for it to go back into government ownership, Johnson said.

Kelly is the Yacht Foundation Liaison for the Sequoia Presidential Yacht Group. The group is based in Washington, D.C. and is “dedicated to preserving ‘America’s most famous boat,’” according to its Web site.

Capturing the essence of a captain

“The film takes place years later,” Johnson said. “(It is) essentially about the relationship between a man and the ship he captained for five years. As we learned while filming … there exists a special bond between a captain and his vessel but, just like in relationships between people, it’s a complicated one. We were extremely interested in how that bond played a role in Capt. Kelly’s life and wanted to show that through the documentary.”

Britain said the group thought it was a great idea for a documentary and character study. It has national importance and would have relevance to “anyone who would watch it,” he said.

The group went into production blind, Johnson said. Some had never been to the district, seen the Sequoia or met Kelly.

“Once we met Capt. Kelly and toured the boat … we realized the story was in front of us, and we just had to do our best to capture and tell it,” Johnson said. “The whole thing was a learning process, and I think that’s one of the most fun parts. While we may have learned a lot about the process of making a short documentary, we probably learned more about Capt. Kelly and his life, his perspective, lessons and ideas about what’s important.”

Challenges of filming

Britain said editing was the most challenging part of the process.

“You have a sense of the story and what you want to do with it, but you don’t have a concrete idea how it’s going to get together,” he said. “Just getting all the pieces to fit together is the biggest challenge of any documentary. Especially when you’re the same people who filmed the thing, you have a certain attachment to everything you shot.”

Johnson echoes this view.

“We felt so connected to many of the insights Kelly gave us that it seemed like a constant wrestling match to decide what would stay and go, what belonged where, how to introduce him, how to tell his story, what should come first, which visuals would complement which ideas,” Johnson said. “In essence, the process of writing the film came through editing and trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle into a picture that made sense.”

Film festivals and an award

Communications instructor Nicole Triche suggested the group include the documentary in the CFVF. Triche is on the judging committee for many festivals in North Carolina, including this one, Britain said.

The festival took place Feb. 16-20 and “Sequoia” was screened Feb. 18. More than 30 films were included, according to the CFVF blog.

Britain took several interactive media master’s students to the festival for the documentary’s screening.

“It’s a local festival, but it has a state-wide reach, and even beyond that, I don’t think it’s limited to North Carolina,” he said. “It was well-run and … it was really nice to be a part of it.”

Britain, who is now in the interactive media master’s program, didn’t find out about the award until after the award ceremony, which he could not attend.

“I sent an e-mail to (one of the festival directors),” Britain said. “And she responded, ‘No problem, but just so you know “Sequoia” won and congrats,’ out of the blue. It was a really nice surprise.”

Britain and Johnson, who moved to Los Angeles last summer, are still submitting the film to festivals. Limerick is also entering the film in European student film festivals. Britain said they want to continue the documentary on a festival circuit and then think about how to distribute it.