"If you’ve never seen a river — a live river — you’ve really missed something."
- Dick Goin, Cast
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. I began shooting on location in Port Angeles, Washington, with Sachi Cunningham in 2010. The story was shot over five years – before, during, and after the historic Elwha River dam removal and during the final years of Dick’s life.
Dick Goin is 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 Goin'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 and writer Erin Barnett and I working together at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York; co-producer Emma Jones worked with us remotely from Washington. Writer Fernanda Rossi came on board to help get the story structure and rhythm aligned. The creative collaboration during post-production was incredibly strong and 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. We, however, did want 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 another. This internal, collaborative storytelling approach also extended to our postproduction process.
Composer Gil Talmi and sound designer Gisela Fullà-Silvestre banded together; graphic artist Begoña Lopez and colorist Victor Melton worked jointly. This high level of creative camaraderie 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 a huge marker in American environmental history.
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. Half way through 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.
THE MEMORY OF FISH
Sachi Cunningham | Jennifer Galvin, Co-Directors
2016 | 54 minutes
Streaming on-demand at fhff.org now through March 31.