By Annette Hinkle
Nathaniel Kramer will admit it. He’s passionate about fishing. Another passion of the part time East End resident is filmmaking — and in his new documentary “A Long Haul,” Kramer manages to merge both interests into a seamless whole.
The film is Kramer’s first, and it follows Bart Ritchie, a Montauk fisherman, and his crew in the wake of a perfect storm of unfortunate economic events. The film takes place in the summer 2009. The dismal economy has resulted in a precipitous drop in clients for charter boats, compounded by an increase in competition due to new vessels that have joined the fleet in recent years. So when Bart agrees to take over Highlander, a troubled commercial fishing boat, in hopes of bringing in some cash for the winter, the crew, with Kramer aboard for the ride, head out to sea on a three day squiding expedition while clouds of a troubled future hang on the horizon.
“A Long Haul” will be screened as the final selection at the Long Island Film Festival which comes to Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor from October 26 to 30. This year’s festival features both documentaries and narratives, short films and animation by filmmakers from around the world. But it’s Montauk that will take center stage at the festival’s end, and Kramer will be on hand to talk about the making of his 44 minute documentary.
“When I started filming I had no idea what it would become,” admits Kramer, who has worked both as a fashion photographer and on Wall Street. “Originally I thought about doing a fishing show. I filmed a bunch of recreational charter captains, commercial fishermen and fly fisherman.”
Among those Kramer met while filming around the docks in Montauk was Bart, along with his crew Kurtis Briand, a fifth generation fisherman, and Leighton Brillo-Sonnino, a 13-year-old from a well-off family whose passion for fishing drove him to spend the summer working with Bart instead of going off to camp. Like something out of “The Old Man and the Sea,” the film documents Bart as he takes Leighton under his wing and becomes a mentor to the young man, teaching him what he knows of a trade that is quickly changing in today’s economics.
“I like making films about outdoorsmen and those who depend on the land for their means of living,” explains Kramer. “It’s really about certain characters. There are a lot of people who fish, but its not easy to translate ones who do it well to the screen.”
But in Bart, Kurtis and Leighton’s story, Kramer saw a microcosm of the issues affecting East Coast fisheries. One of the reasons he chose Bart as a subject for the film was the fact that he is both a recreational and commercial captain. And as Bart and the crew made the necessary transition from recreational to commercial fishing, Kramer himself began to see commercial fishing from another angle.
“As a fisherman, I was aware of the issues and had always had a negative attitude toward commercial fisherman,” admits Kramer. “As I followed them last summer the story unfolded and changed my opinion of the commercial industry. There is such camaraderie and it’s such hard work Bart and Kurtis are great characters. It was really luck. Documentary making is like fishing. You shoot a lot of film, but don’t know if you’ll get anything good or not.”
In the film Bart gets into the politics of fishing as he rails against state and federal regulations that he feels are unfair, unpredictable or unreasonable — roadblocks that stand in the way of honest men trying to make honest livings.
“Last year they could keep 70 pounds of fluke a day, but to do that, they had to throw back 1,000 pounds of fish — mostly dead and mostly sellable,” explains Kramer. “Instead if they could just be allowed to catch 500 pounds of sellable fish, then they could stop for the day.”
“The regulations are really bad interpretations of scientific research,” continues Kramer. “I don’t think there’s valid research and not much science based on what’s reported. There are so many gray areas,” says Kramer. “[In the film] I’m combining [those issues] with two men struggling to make a living who love what they do. A short day for them is 14 hours. For me it was incredible. We’re all really good friends now.”
“I think Bart is an incredible fisherman,” he adds.
Beyond the question of whether there are fish to find in the waters off the East End, the film also documents the unforeseen and never ending mechanical problems inherent in the business. Bart and his crew find themselves facing numerous challenges to get the commercial boat they’ve taken charge of to work properly.
“The issue was the boat hadn’t been fished and when it was, it hadn’t been taken care of,” explains Kramer. “They were under pressure to make money.”
Like most industries, money is ultimately at the heart of the issue. The question is whether or not fishing will be a viable career for the next generation of East End resident. In this regard, young Leighton’s presence on Bart’s boat is something of an enigma.
“Look at mates today on the dock in Montauk. They’re all over 40,” points out Kramer. “The unfortunate part is if someone makes a living as a commercial fisherman, I don’t know what else they can do. The guys who do it, it’s all they know how to do. Will they get a job somewhere else? I don’t know.”
Though “A Long Haul” takes place exclusively on the water, Kramer saw more in this story. So this past summer, he went back to spend a second fishing season with Bart and the crew and also got to know the family members on land as well. He will continue to film the fishermen through January and the approaching birth of Kurtis’ child. Kramer then plans to merge this new footage with “A Long Haul” to create a feature length film.
“On the whole fishing has improved for them, hopefully it will be more of a happy story,” says Kramer, who is careful to give nothing more away about what’s to come. “Bart concurs — the second year was much more successful.”
“A Long Haul” will be screened as part of the Long Island Film Festival at 7 p.m. on Saturday, October 30 at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. The festival runs October 26, 27, 28 and 30. Tickets are $10 for each evening’s screenings, which include several films, and doors open at 6 p.m. For a full schedule of screenings, visit www.lifilm.org.
Top: Kurtis Briand and Leighton Brillo-Sonnino working aboard Highlander.