George Crain and Lance Lipman want 15 minutes of your time.
At the end of that quarter hour, they hope you are as convinced as them that St. Simons Island is worth saving from its own charm, beauty and allure. The two retired St. Simons filmmakers state their case in a short documentary set amid the island’s diverse natural attractions and chronicled by an eclectic collection of folks who call this place home.
Members of the community are invited to see for themselves later this month at a free screening of St. Simons: Surviving Success. The film will be shown at 1 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Island Cinemas on St. Simons Island. The theater is located at 44 Cinema Lane, off Sea Island Road behind the Shops at Sea Island.
A question-and-answer session with the two filmmakers will follow the screening, as well as a power point presentation concerning St. Simons Island growth projections by George Ragsdale of Citizens for St. Simons and Sea Island.
The documentary features panoramic aerial footage of the beaches, marshes and maritime forests that have long been the aesthetic signatures of St. Simons Island. Interspersed with these hallmark St. Simons land and waterscapes are interviews with familiar islanders, including multigenerational tour boat captain Cap Fendig, local law enforcement legend Randall Lacey, and longtime resident and business owner Leslie Faulkenberry.
Then comes the warning: The island is in danger of being overrun by its own inescapable appeal. Unchecked development and continued strains on its infrastructure threaten to transform St. Simons Island into a claustrophobic version of the monotonous urban sprawl that so many folks arrived here to escape.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we want people to think about the questions,” said Lipman, who retired full time to St. Simons six years ago. “We want people to give some thought as to what needs to be done. We’re just trying to get people involved.”
The friendship between Lipman and Crain goes back years, forming as both made careers in Atlanta as commercial and corporate filmmakers and videographers. The two men and their families shared a long-distance love of St. Simons Island for years, until both retired to St. Simons and became neighbors in island’s East Beach neighborhood. After attending civic meetings in recent years concerning growth and planning issues, Crain suggested to Lipman they put their heads together and come up with a plan.
“I got the idea to do the film because I had already discovered that the island was a special place, magical if you will,” said Crain, who retired to the island in 2005. “I noticed a lot of people feel that way. I got the idea to make a film about that charm. And also to show what’s at risk, in the future buildout of the island, if we don’t plan carefully.”
Much of the film is devoted to reminiscences of island times that will never be recaptured. Island native Bill Walker of Golden Isles Aviation recalled his childhood on East Beach near Gould’s Inlet, when a boy could travel Tarzan-like from one majestic oak to the next, all the way to Coast Guard Beach, “without ever touching the ground.” When Faulkenberry moved here many years ago, traffic control devices were a novelty — two of the three lights only flashed caution yellow after sundown, she recalled.
Still more guests discuss what remains special about St. Simons. David Blackshear cherishes the throwback atmosphere of the Pier Village shopping district, where friendly faces at mostly family-owned businesses thrive on old-fashioned customer service.
Susan Shipman, a former director of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division, loves spending time down at the pier, people watching and talking shop with anglers and crabbers who congregate there from all walks of life.
Other scenes in the film conjure images of community, evoke a sense of tradition and portray a shared awe for island life — the Fourth of July Golf Cart Parade, ceremonies on the lawn at Neptune Park and communing with nature from beachside to marshside.
“This is a whole thing, this is a real place,” said David Pope, the former Executive Director of the St. Simons Land Trust. “It’s not a manufactured community.”
Lipman and Crain spent several years, off and on, producing the documentary. Crain was a producer at Atlanta’s first film production company, Provence Productions. As the owner of Crain Productions, he produced commercials for Quaker Oats, Kmart, Krystal and Georgia Power. Lipman started out making training videos for corporate clients with his company, Video Assets Inc. He went on to direct the one-hour nationally-televised documentary, Dying to Live, about patients waiting for organ transplants. He later oversaw video initiatives for the Atlanta Regional Commission.
From novelist and islander Tina McElroy Ansa to restaurateur Palmer Fortune of Palmer’s Village Cafe to delightfully eloquent teenage beachgoer Rebecca Brooks, dozens of impromptu interviews carry the story’s narrative. Still others wonder if middle fingers and car horns will replace nods of admittance and friendly waves at island roundabouts. Will cookie cutter subdivisions fill in the open spaces and supplant the island’s unique character?
“If you want to keep it together the way it is, you’ll need to get together and start working,” cautions the beat cop Lacey, who has patrolled the island he calls home for some 25 years.
After committing to the St. Simons Island film project, the two men knew they did not want outside input or influences — money especially — from folks who might seek to sway the direction of the message.
“We never meant to do a chamber of commerce thing,” Lipman said. “We were never here to promote the island. We knew we were going to talk about issues. After a while we got more serious about talking about issues.”
“Seeking money never crossed our mind,” added Crain. “We don’t want it because we want control. We were approached at the very beginning by a couple of groups that wanted to be involved, but they would want to have a say also.”
Ben Slade, the present Executive Director of the St. Simons Island Land Trust, was consulted about the documentary. Likewise, Pope appears in the documentary. “The land trust was gracious enough to become promotional partners, but it’s not their film,” Lipman said. “A lot of people have mistakenly assumed that.”
The documentary did make its premier showing at the St. Simons Land Trust’s Live Oak Society board meeting in March. It has also been given sneak peaks at other smaller venues, including a recent St. Simons Island Rotary Club meeting and at an upcoming Golden Isles Ivy League Club event.
The two movie makers, however, believe St. Simons: Surviving Success needs to be seen on the big screen to get the full effect.
“In terms of the emotional experience, this is the way we intended it to be seen — projected, large, overpowering, dramatic,” Lipman said. “And that’s the way you get the most emotional value.”