An island of tradition

Smith Island folks determined to stay

April 20, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Island Out of Time, a documentary on the forces threatening Smith Island and the grit of the residents fighting to hold on, fits more information and feeling into 30 minutes than any film in recent memory.

While its narration is written in the straightforward and grounded language of a newspaper article or mainstream history, the pictures with which director Hugh Drescher fills the screen are the distilled images of a poet. Island Out of Time is an unpretentious, lovely and wise work that made me care about this nearby place I've never visited in ways I never imagined I would. It is easy to see why the film won a distinguished achievement award from the International Documentary Association last year and why PBS chose to bring it to a national audience.

"In the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, on the Eastern Shore of the United States, is an island that is home to just over 400 people. For nearly 200 years, the fate of Smith Island and its people has been tied to the water," viewers are told as a montage of island images plays across the screen (boats in motion with watermen at work against the changing greens and blues of the water and the stunning lavenders, yellows, grays and blues of the sky above the bay).

"Islanders pull their living from the Chesapeake," the narration continues, "passing on the tradition to their sons and daughters. But now, Smith Island is changing. Pollution, disease and over-harvesting have nearly killed off the oysters. And many worry that the blue crab, the island's last resource, could be next."

The forces threatening the existence of Smith Island extend beyond the possible loss of blue crab bounty. Among the worst are a rise in sea level and constant erosion.

In this regard, the Smith Island seen here looks like it might be a small town along the Mississippi during a springtime of floods. The irony of the water that has so nourished this culture licking away at the land on which it stands is not lost on the filmmaker. You realize about 10 minutes into the film that virtually every one of the island residents who has appeared on screen has been wearing waders (knee-high rubber boots).

Standing against such forces and given full voice by Drescher are the men and women of Smith Island -- like Jennings Evans, waterman and historian, who best sounds the film's story line of man vs. nature.

"The island lifestyle is going to disappear," Evans says in the film. "But we're so stubborn that we're going to cling to it as long as we can. They're going to have to drag us off here kicking and screaming."

Documentary

What: Island Out of Time

When: Tomorrow 10:30 p.m.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67), WETA (Channel 22)

In brief: A lyrical look at an island culture fighting for its life.

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