A documentary that will kick off the Freep Film Festival Wednesday night tells an unfinished story.
Its director is confident that Detroiters will love the film. But how it ends depends on the people it is about.
“Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale” will premiere to a sold-out Redford Theatre in Detroit as the start of the five-day Freep Film Festival. The annual showcase of documentaries, which is in its eighth year, is set to feature more than 35 screenings — in-person and virtual — as well as parties and other events.
“Boblo Boats” — a relatively low-budget, independent documentary — takes you on a voyage through history as groups of preservationists attempt to save two 200-foot-long steamboats that, for decades, took passengers back and forth from Detroit to Boblo Island, also known as Bois Blanc Island.
The island, which is in Canada, was home to one of North America’s earliest amusement parks.
The park opened in 1898 and shut down nearly three decades ago. The rides were sold off. But what remained of that place were the two boats — the Columbia and the SS Ste. Claire — which ferried two to three thousand ticket holders at a time up and down the Detroit River.
“I know Detroiters are going to love the film, and I hope it sparks a lot of conversations,” filmmaker Aaron Schillinger, 38, said Tuesday. “But I would love to introduce the magic of Boblo Island, the passion about it — and the kind of crazy characters and its history — to people outside Detroit.”
The film reveals the preservationists’ roller coaster of emotions, their motivations, victories and defeats.
It helps you understand the nostalgia for the glory days of Boblo Island, the two boats and the many things we associate with Detroit. But it also adds context that shows that, for many, that past wasn’t as good as has been portrayed.
The film also leaves you wondering: Will the ferry tale end happily ever after?
In addition to debuting the film, Wednesday’s event is set to include a discussion with Schillinger and others connected to the film that likely will explore questions film-goers might have, and also some of the darker parts of the city’s history — such as racial discrimination and segregation — that nostalgia often blocks out.
There also may be some updates about what’s happening with the boats.
A second screening is set for 8 p.m. Saturday at Chroma, 2937 E. Grand Blvd.
Schillinger, a Virginia native who moved to New York to study filmmaking, learned about the boats through a psychic, Gloria Davis, who is in the film but died before it was finished, who told him one of the vessels — the Columbia — spoke to her.
The filmmaker came in contact with the boat because it was being moved from Detroit to New York.
“I was a little skeptical at first,” Schillinger said of the psychic’s connection to the vessel. “But, in the end, I sat and talked with her for hours and she just completely won me over of how important these boats are to Detroit. When I first saw the Columbia, my thought was, ‘Why don’t you just get a new boat?’ “
It was in disrepair.
But Schillinger said after talking to Davis and other Detroiters with happy remembrances of Boblo, he “began to understand, it was about more than just a boat.” The boats, he added, represent a collection of “memories frozen in time.”
That’s when he said he knew he had the makings of a full-length documentary.
For six years, Schillinger toiled on the project.
He researched and documented what happened to the boats and what they mean to Detroiters. He also found some things out about Boblo Island that seemed to be lost to history because they were forgotten — and not well preserved.
“It has been a very long journey,” the filmmaker said. “But the thing that definitely kept me going was to be able to go up to any Detroiter over the age of 30 — I take a guess — and ask, ‘Did you ever go to Boblo?’ and they would smile.”
Schillinger filmed the documentary primarily in Detroit. It uses interviews, archival footage and photos.
It also incorporates stop-motion animation to tell the story of Sarah Elizabeth Ray, an African-American woman who in 1943 was thrown off the Columbia, sued and took her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Schillinger said he turned to animation because there wasn’t enough video, photographs and other artifacts he could use to tell that part of the story. And Ray, who married and changed her name, didn’t have any children that he could interview.
While working on the project, Schillinger moved from New York to Ferndale.
And the psychic also gave Schillinger the inspiration for how to tell the story: personifying the Columbia. Motown legend Martha Reeves narrates the story as if she were the Columbia. The boat recalls what she saw and experienced.
The film ends, however, with both boat projects suffering substantial setbacks.
“It remains to be seen what happens,” Schillinger said. And, he added, spoiler alert: there may even be some good news about the Columbia during the discussion after the screening.
And he said the Ste. Claire could end up as a dockside attraction.
“These restoration projects just take such a long time,” Schillinger said, adding that he hopes the film raises some awareness about the Boblo boats. “I mean, I thought it took a long time to make the movie. But they have an even bigger project on their hands.”
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freep Film Festival
Dates: Wednesday through Sunday, at venues across metro Detroit and in virtual screenings