Behind the Documentary: The Making of The Memory of Fish

Published on in Director's Cut

We need many more environmental success stories. Communities across the US are struggling with the realities of unhealthy rivers and depressed fish stocks, feeling the impacts of coastal degradation and climate change, and debating both dam construction and removal. Salmon populations are at risk in the Pacific Northwest, nonetheless salmon ranks among the top consumed fish in the US. Salmon need cool, clear water to swim in and spawn. Entire ecosystems rely on these fish—and so do we. The effects of water quality and human health extend beyond shores and across state lines. East to west, rivers connect us all.

But, can a river really be restored after a century of damming? What’s the secret to staying committed to a cause over a lifetime? And, how do you restore what you can’t remember? These were the North Star questions while making The Memory of Fish. Part fable, part biography, part nature film, the vision was to tell the comeback story of a wild river through a seminal character, a story that would play out like a good book and stay in your bones.

With unprecedented access to the legendary Dick Goin, we were gifted a rare opportunity in documentary film to explore the collective dimensions of art and science. The story was shot from 2010-2016 – before, during, and after the historic Elwha River dam removal and during the final years of Dick’s life.

Dick Goin was not your typical “environmentalist.” He was a blue-collar worker and a passionate fisherman who believed he had a debt to the salmon because they sustained and saved his family. Archival imagery takes us back to the beginning of Dick's story: 1937, a six-year-old boy running from dusty Iowa with his family in the Dirty Thirties. Over the years and along the river we continue, learning about the lives of salmon and peeling back Dick’s understanding of the natural world. This film is a requiem of sort... — for fish, rivers, and people — but it also looks to the future through Dick and the promise of a second chance for the Elwha River.

Post-production began in February 2015 with editor Erin Barnett and I working together at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York. Writer Fernanda Rossi came on board to help get the story structure and rhythm aligned. The creative collaboration during post-production was incredibly strong, especially when it came to the film’s graphics, music and sound design, which brought this authentic, cycle of life tale to reality.

This wasn’t a classic David vs. Goliath story. Dick was one of many over the years who fought to get the dams down. However, we wanted to invite the audience into the life and mind of one man who was part of something much bigger than himself. Visually representing the concept of memory, while also telling the salmon’s side of the story, was a challenge. How would we get inside of Dick’s mind to help viewers re-imagine a river? How would we tell the life cycle of salmon together with the historic dam removal fight? And how would we make it all feel like it belonged in the same movie?

As much as I am not a big fan of narration, we knew that this film needed it. We were honored to have the incredible Lili Taylor join the production. Her experienced voice lends authenticity, balancing emotion with grit through the life-death story arc.

The Memory of Fish benefitted from the script’s macro and micro approaches all along the way as we crafted a fable-like portrait. We stitched together the threads of man-fish- memory by not necessarily marrying them, but rather letting them inform each other. This enabled the delicate balance between an informative biography and a transportive, experimental film. The story ebbs and flows, enabling the viewer to feel a part of Dick’s connection to the river as we go back in time and shift perspectives above and below the river, all while set against the backdrop of an important marker in American environmental history. In 2016, the film was one of three finalists nominated for the Best Script Award by Wildscreen’s Panda Awards, the highest accolade in the wildlife film and TV industry, dubbed the Green Oscars.

In documentary filmmaking, production surprises abound. One of our biggest challenges was that there was very little visual evidence, especially moving images, of Dick’s activism. However, we had one key piece of material: a cassette tape of Dick’s infamous 1983 speech when he made a plea to save the Elwha’s wild fish. We used the speech audio mixed with poetic imagery to travel through Dick’s memories of giant fish that swam in what was once considered the queen of rivers in the Pacific Northwest. It was especially challenging to show the salmon’s side of the story. I wanted to get audience members as close as possible to these incredible fish–to see their scales, their teeth, their power–and to show their heroic migration story, much like we often see for land-based animals. During the production, we were also confronted with another tough challenge: Dick’s health was fading. On April 12, 2015, Dick passed away at home surrounded by his family.

With The Memory of Fish, I wanted to create space to think about rivers and salmon, and our connection to them. As someone who has spent more time in oceans than in rivers, working on this film and spending time with Dick and Marie Goin was a tremendous honor. One of my greatest joys was knowing that Dick lived long enough to see the dams come down and the fish come home. The last time I saw him he gave me one of his fishing rods, which he said would teach me more than a camera. It’s a personal regret that I couldn’t get the film finished before he died. I wish that he had lived to see it on the big screen and watch how it’s impacting audiences around the world.

The Memory of Fish is now available on Amazon Video, DVD, and iTunes.

About the Filmmaker

A public health scientist by training and a storyteller by nature, Dr. Jennifer Galvin is internationally recognized for her work at the intersection of environment, health, media, and story. While her projects have explored a wide range of topics over the years, they find a strong union in the themes that drive them: environment, justice, health, underrepresented characters, and unlikely heroes. Her motivations remain fueled by the maxim protect the vulnerable. Commercial to indie, documentary to fiction, moving image to print – for Jennifer, it all starts with a great story at reelblue, LLC – her independent film production and media company based in New York. Recent honors include being named to GOOD Magazine's GOOD 100, representing the vanguard of artists, activists, entrepreneurs, and innovators from over 35 countries making a creative impact. More about Jennifer at reelblue.net and jengalvin.com.

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