Saturday, January 2, 2010

Filmmaker Q&A: Jennifer Galvin, "Free Swim"

What is your overall summary for "Free Swim"?
Free Swim is an award winning documentary film about the paradox of coastal people not knowing how to swim. Taking place on Eleuthera, an island of The Bahamas, we follow a group of kids as they overcome their fears, gain confidence and reconnect with their environment by learning to swim in open waters. With fresh memories of a friend drowning and the conflicts of growing tourism, for these kids it’s not just about floating, but gaining new skills for their future.

What was your inspiration for creating the film?
The idea for Free Swim grew out of personal adventures and public health work with coastal populations around the world. I was increasingly aware that many people, young and old, who
live surrounded by water, do not know how to swim. As a doctor of environmental health and a filmmaker I saw swimming as a node for environmental, economic and social determinants of health, and the implications of this dynamic as a connector for two troubling issues:

1 - Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for children globally and is underreported. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 60% of children of color are unable to swim and they drown at disproportionate rates - three times the rate of Caucasian children.

2 - Modern living has created a disconnect between people and nature, and the gap grows, especially for youth. Teachers, parents and physicians recognize its impact on health, achievement and creativity of our future decision-makers.

I wanted to explore the interconnection of these two critical concerns with a story that merged the harms of the past with hopes for the future. Once I learned that The Bahamas had the 4th highest drowning rate per capita in the world and that Swim to Empower ( was giving lessons on Eleuthera, the location for what would become Free Swim was clear.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?
Documentary filmmaking is all about real people, in real places, in real time. There’s a high level of sensitive professionalism that is required to gain the trust of the story and oftentimes the story takes unexpected paths. I try to let the story speak for itself and to allow the characters to use my camera as a vessel for their voices and actions.

Technically, Free Swim was challenging because I was a one-woman crew and my equipment was constantly exposed to the hot sun, sand, saltwater and bumpy dirt roads. Capturing sound during the swimming lessons was a little tricky at times. Free Swim was envisioned from the beginning as having a more poetic, episodic style, which is not often seen in today’s character-driven documentary market. Free Swim’s talented editor, Diana Logreira, had worked with Kiarostami (one of my filmmaking heroes) so she easily adapted to the idea of a different creative process and was very open to telling Free Swim in a non-linear fashion.

What do you want to impart on your film’s viewers?
I strive to create a dialogue between the audience and moving image, music and voice because environmental and public health challenges need people to feel connected to the problems – and to the solutions. Free Swim is an empowering film that combines the individual human experience of learning to swim with larger societal topics, exploring complicated socio-economic and environmental challenges with which communities’ worldwide struggle. These include the influences on community function by the media, drowning, tourism, education and ecological health – to name just a few. While the documentary’s emotional trajectory unfolds in a new island destination for many audience members, the process of learning to swim allows viewers to tap into personal fears and have an experience with the ocean. For young and old, it is a story about access to untapped potential for achievement and to a renewed opportunity for the future of our own health, and of the health of the planet.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?
The most enjoyable parts of creating Free Swim were living on Eleuthera, making life-long friends and shining a light on a cause – and of course, getting to spend a lot of time in the ocean.

How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films?
I grew up on Long Island, NY, and my heritage has always been deeply rooted in the ocean. Having spent time in the academic environment and in the non-profit world, I saw the need for scientists like me to use their backgrounds in a more creative and communicative way. Merging my skills and sensibilities to make movies seemed to be a natural fit and reelblue, LLC ( was founded in 2006 with my friend and colleague Sachi Cunningham.
What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?
There are really so many memories, especially now that it is being shared with audiences
around the world. While filming it was incredible to witness such a consistent, human
response when people of any age learned to float. I’ll never forget those faces.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?
The film’s companion book – We, Sea – is available for sale and starting in
early 2010, individuals, organizations and schools will be able to host their own screenings
of Free Swim. Visit us at and to learn more!
Don't miss "Free Swim," at the 7th Annual San Francisco Ocean Film Festival
When: February 3-7, 2010
Where: Theatre 39The Embarcadero and Beach Street, San Francisco

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