Written by Emilie Kefalas

The 2017 Gray’s Reef Film Festival will illuminate the marquee and screen of the Trustees Theater February 2 through 5. Sponsored by the National Marine Sanctuaries, the festival, now in its 14th year, has become an annual tradition for Gray’s Reef, one of the largest near shore live-bottom reefs in the southeastern United States.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Our Community, Our Ocean” according to an event press release. Each film aims to point out how ocean communities embrace their relationship with nature Featured 3D films include “The Last Reef 3D,” “Galapagos 3D,” “Wonders of the Arctic 3D” and Jean-Michel Cousteau’s “Secret Ocean 3D.”

The festivities commence today, Jan. 24, at 10 a.m. with a children’s session featuring films discussing the ocean and its creatures. Savannah Chatham County Public School System students will be present for the screenings, and the event is also free and open to the public.

A private, premiere event, the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation Founder’s Party, will be held Thursday, Feb. 2, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 24e on Broughton Street.

The third night of the festival, Saturday, February 4, will host at multiple venues, including the SCAD Museum of Art for the Emerging Filmmakers Competition at 3 p.m. The winner of the Emerging Filmmakers Competition will be announced Saturday night following a screening of “Secret Ocean 3D.” The highlight of the evening will be the presentation of the Gray’s Reef Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award to underwater filmmaker and SCAD Professor, Kevin McCarey.

The final day of the festival, Sunday, Feb. 5, will switch venues to Tybee Island at the Tybee Post Theater for a series of fun, short films. All events are set to finish Sunday at 4:30 p.m. with a wrap party at the North Beach Bar and Grill.

Executive Director of the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (GRNMSF), Vicki Weeks, considers the event a unique chance for Savannah’s students and locals to engage and educate themselves on the value of Gray’s Reef.

“Not everyone will have the opportunity to see the beauty of the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) live reef first hand,” Weeks said. “But the art work developed for this competition, will give everyone an opportunity to experience and enjoy the wonders of that watery world from an aesthetic perspective.”

Speaking on the festival’s poster contest held earlier in November, Weeks said that the artwork submissions play a large role in spreading a positive message about Gray’s Reef and its beauty.

“People care about what they know,” Weeks said. “And the work of these artists will help protect and conserve this incredible resource by bringing awareness of it to people from all walks of life.”

Deputy Superintendent at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, Chris Hines, emphasized the importance of raising awareness of Gray’s Reef and its underwater resources.  

“What we’re trying to get to with this . . . is bringing the incredible reefs and fish and turtles and sharks and all the incredible creatures that are out at Gray’s Reef and other structures offshore to the community,” Hines said. “But really, there’s this underwater, magical place that we’re going to link to at the film festival.”

Hines said that since Gray’s Reef’s first film festival event, the foundation has made a footprint in the Savannah community.

“Before that, we were more focused on the research, and inspiring the Savannah community specifically,” Hines said. “We’ve noticed that as our film festival has really picked up, our number of volunteers have picked up. All this interest has come our way in addition to a lot of media attention. So we’re really excited about the community’s response to our efforts.”

As for the Reef itself, Hines said the reserve is thriving.

“We got knocked around a little bit with the hurricane, so our buoy took a little bit of damage,” Hines said. “Overall, community support has been tremendous. It’s really been exciting, and when we show people these images of Gray’s Reef, they’re just blown away. They have no idea that that’s off our coast, so that’s been our main outreach tool.”

Hines said there is a suggested donation when guests arrive at the theater that will benefit the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. The contribution is $10 a day for adults and $5 a day for children, students and members of the military.

“In terms of other thoughts, we just want to get people excited about the ocean,” Hines said. “And it really is a great way to combine the ocean, to have a great event downtown every year.”