Stephen Doster didn’t set out to make a documentary.
But an experiment with video transformed into an entire film spanning 400 years of St. Simons Island’s history.
Doster’s recently released “Saint Simons 360” delves into the island’s history, from its indigenous inhabitants to its modern-day middle class residents.
Doster began experimenting with video in 2009 with the goal of creating a short piece about the island.
Twelve videos later, he had produced a documentary.
“I’ve been adding on to it ever since then to what is now a two-hour film,” Doster said. “However, it’s formatted so that you can watch it in segments according to a particular era or event, or you can watch it from start to finish — from Native American occupation to the present day.”
Doster, who works as an editor at Vanderbilt University, grew up on St. Simons Island but moved away after college. He has family members who still live on the island.
“This documentary is an attempt to simplify island history for newcomers, visitors and even long-time residents,” Doster said. “I learned a lot doing the research, and I grew up on the island.”
The island’s history tells a colorful story. The video covers six distinct eras, and with each successive occupier on the island — Native Americans, English planters, enslaved African descendants known as the Gullah Geechee — another layer was added to the tale.
Doster’s book, “Voices from St. Simons,” became the starting point for the documentary.
But shooting video for the film took him on boat tours and helicopter rides, while researching took him deep into the archives of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, which he said provided many of the historical images used in the film.
“Visitors to our area are fascinated by the rich history of St. Simons Island,” said Mimi Rogers, curator for the historical society. “The mission of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society is to preserve and share our local history.”
She said the society’s collection contains more than 6,000 photographs and postcards illustrating multiple facets of the area’s history.
“We were happy to help Stephen Doster with historical images that tell the story of our island,” Rogers said.
Johnathan, Stephen Doster’s brother, and Steve Applegate also worked as photographers for the documentary.
Doster said he didn’t believe this kind of retelling of the island’s history has ever been created before, and this video is only a surface-view of the island’s rich 400-year past.
“All these events in 400 years, it’s hard to keep up, even for locals,” he said.
But he said the island’s past represents a microcosm of American history.
“Almost every war that happened on American soil impacted the island in some way, as well as World War II and the Spanish-American War, which weren’t fought on American soil,” he said.
Famous former citizens of the island who star in the documentary include Robert Abbott, a slave’s son who started the Chicago Defender on a budget of 25 cents and who became a major voice in promoting the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North in the early 1900s. Also featured in the film is Neptune Small, a servant of the King family, who lived at Retreat Plantation. Small retrieved King’s body from a Civil War battlefield in Fredericksburg, Va., and brought the body the long distance back to Georgia.
“These are some of the remarkable island residents who left their marks on the world,” Doster said.
The documentary is on sale at GJ Ford Bookshop, One of a Kind and the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, all on St. Simons Island, and The Market on Newcastle in Brunswick. It can also be streamed on Amazon.
“I want people to have an appreciation for what it took to turn a wilderness where life-and-death struggles once took place into a tamed resort island where you can shop, play golf or lounge by a pool,” Doster said. “I hope people who watch it will be inspired to act as good stewards for the next generation of islanders to enjoy.”