Seeing Willapa: Local filmmaker creates vision of Willapa Bay in new documentary

Student filmaker Justin Campbell focues on "The Oystermen of Willapa Bay" in a documentary that will shown locally this week. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

OCEAN PARK - As the TV screen goes from fuzzy to blue you begin to see the aerial vistas and smooth waters of Willapa Bay. A figure silhouetted against a reflection of pink and purple skies as he digs oysters in tidewaters. These are the openings scenes of "The Oystermen of Willapa Bay."

The new documentary, to be screened at the Oysterville schoolhouse on Friday at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., brings to life the people and places that make up the local oyster industry. It is the efforts of local student filmmaker Justin Campbell. The 39-year-old Campbell has worked on his film for over a year, which began as a short for a class at Evergreen State College. Campbell has lived on the Peninsula on-and-off for the past 20 years, most of that time spent in Seattle, where he worked for five years as a buyer for a natural foods store and another two years as a sales and distribution representative for Odwalla juices. This was until the E. coli crisis at Odwalla in late 1996. It was after the fallout at his job that Campbell decided to come back to the coast to help his mother, who had been both working and trying to care for her ailing mother. "I really felt like I needed to come back," said Campbell, "Mother really needed my help."

After being back for around six months Campbell needed something to keep himself busy and decided to enroll in classes at Clatsop Community College. "What I did to be productive while I was down here was go to school, which is where the film came from."

Though the junior college offered him a chance at getting his feet wet with the classes offered, he knew he wanted more. This led him to the Evergreen State College in Olympia.

"I've always liked the school, its kind of an alternative school, it certainly fit my lifestyle," said Campbell, who has been going to college periodically throughout his life. "There were a lot of factors and they all came down to practical things. What was really attractive to me was that if I got into a program I was interested in, I could then create my own work. I had a lot of life experience and I kinda knew what I wanted to do." And what he wanted to do was get into filmmaking.

While living in Seattle he produced his own public access television show but says, "I've always loved films, as a spectator. I wasn't Spielberg with a camera at 8," laughs Campbell.

Campbell has friends from high school that have gone on to work in Hollywood.

"To me it was always kinda like a dream. Something that you do if you're crazy, it's not a practical thing."

He decided that when he went back to school this time it would be for something he could really invest himself in. As he puts it, "Because this time it's my money."

So how does a student going to school in Olympia end up making a film about oyster farming on the coast? "Lets see if I can be somewhat brief," chuckles Campbell.

The first program Campbell took at Evergreen was a documentary filmmaking class. One of the final projects he had was to create a film of an event, shot from the beginning to the end. The only criteria were that it had to be shot on Super 8 film, it had to be three minutes long (which is the length of a Super 8 reel), and they had only ten days to finish it.

"I racked my brains trying to figure out what to do. I knew a lot of people were going to be doing small things and I really felt I was beyond that. I wanted to create a piece that had a beginning, a middle, and an end."

While on the coast one day he happened by the Oysterville Sea Farms in Ocean Park.

"I was talking to Dan (Driscall, the owner), as it turns out he has a background in film, in Hollywood. He started talking to me about that. He gave me a camera he no longer used and I said, 'Why don't I do it here?' He was wonderful. He embraced it."

Driscall not only gave Campbell the camera he used for the short, but also the time he needed to see his vision for the piece realized.

"He would come by and I think he was doing a film on how oysters were harvested," says Driscall of the filmmaker. "He's such a charming man that I've always been impressed with him."

When giving Campbell the camera he told of its history.

"This was given to me by Brian Frankish, the executive producer of "Field of Dreams," and was given to him by a director of photography friend of his, Stephen Poster. It had a wonderful lens on it. I thought that if Justin could use it, that would be great."

Campbell ended up spending four to five hours with Driscall at his oyster farm to create his three-minute movie. But as he puts it, "It was fabulous. It turned out perfectly."

The film was a success for Campbell. At the start of the next semester he had three weeks to come up with an idea for another film.

He enlisted the help of two other students, Chris Nelson and Fhillipe Briers, who thought that the subject matter of his short film worked and decided to expand on that. Campbell says of the decision process, "Why don't we just do that? I like oysters. We'll drink beer and we'll make a film on oysters, an 8 to 10 minute film."

However, their little 8-minute observational film, which wasn't supposed to have any expository commentary to it, ended up evolving into a much bigger project once they started filming.

"We thought it would be easy and simple. But what we found out is that there are all of these issues going on down here, and that people were really, in a sense, fighting for not only their lifestyle but also their traditions for several generations. There was a lot of history and there was a lot of drama."

There were topical issues that were ecologically based, like Carbaryl, a chemical used by some oyster growers to harden up the ground occupied by shrimp for oyster growth. And Spartina, a non-native plant that has taken over tide waters where controversy stems from the debate over chemical or mechanical ways of removing it. Though Campbell says neither occupies anymore time or focus than anything else in the movie.

"So we kinda turned around, very early on, and said there's a bigger project here. So we kinda switched gears. It ultimately led to the film that we have." Says Campbell, "It really is two films. It's an observational film. The first half is primarily having the pictures tell the story. And the second half is basically an interactive style of documentary where you have your interviews, talking heads and issues."

What Campbell says was the biggest success of the film is the access he gained from the local farmers.

"I think the other great thing about this film is that we got inside. I knew enough people down here that were willing to have me come into their establishment and speak quite candidly about their lives and the issues in their lives. That's what made it compelling, you couldn't turn away from that. I was interested in holding up a mirror, not only to the setting, but who we found here. The people and issues we found here. And the film is a success on that level."

This Friday night will be only the second time the film has been shown publicly, the first being for evaluation in his Evergreen class.

"My mother's seen it twice," smiles Campbell, "I've kept it under wraps because I didn't really want an opinion to arise about the film before people had a chance to see it."

And though he didn't necessarily set out to show the film in the community, he says he now feels an obligation.

"I knew that when I kept running into people who were associated with the film, or in the film, that I was in a situation where I had a responsibility to the community. People wanted to see the film. I think a large thing is that nobody's done it before and that it is an interesting story."

What does the filmmaker hope the public will take from viewing the film?

"I hope they have an opportunity to see themselves in it to a certain extent. To see that it's not a glamorous lifestyle, the oyster industry. These aren't people who want to draw attention to themselves."

As time passes after this Friday, Campbell will be preparing his movie to hit the film festival circuit.

"There are so many film festivals nationally. So many that this film could easily fit into. And now that the film is done I just have to put together a press packet and mail it out, and I'm definitely going to do that."

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