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Thunder Bay International Film Festival

For five days this January, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary immersed Alpena in an awe-inspiring cinematic journey, featuring films that explore not only the grandeur of Lake Huron and our other Great Lakes and the region, but the mesmerizing world of our oceans’ depths.

Thunder Bay International Film Festival Trailer

I recently spoke with Stephanie Gandulla and Cassandra Sadler with Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary regarding the Thunder Bay International Film Festival hosted by the sanctuary on January 24-28, and the critical role it plays in engaging and educating the public on the importance of preservation of our national system of underwater National Parks.

Stephanie is a resource protection coordinator and Cassandra is a resource protection specialist with Thunder Bay.

Born twelve years ago out of the need to educate the masses on the importance of preservation of our Great Lakes and oceans, the Thunder Bay International Film Festival has become one of the most effective venues to accomplish this mission.

The fusion of cinematography and storytelling is a compelling way to engage audiences on topics ranging from Michigan’s incredible maritime history to research, conservation, and recreation as related to bodies of water worldwide.

According to Stephanie and Cassandra, the festival is not only a huge boost for the local economy, but also a boost in the awareness of the importance of conservation and preservation. The focus for Great Lakes film makers usually falls within the realm of shipwrecks, surfing, and invasive species. But this year is a little different.

As part of this year’s festival, the first professional film competition that is solely focused on the Great Lakes region will take place. This competition is being held in partnership with The Sunset Project – a nonprofit organization focused on investing in creative communities and changing how northeast Michigan views mental health.

The theme for this inaugural competition is “Representing the Great Lakes through Strong Storytelling” with a focus on discovery, authentic experience, and human connection.”

The Top 5 films were shown on Saturday, January 27 at 6pm at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, where the winner of the competition will be announced.

The entries included:

Senghor Reid: Make Way For Tomorrow | 13 min. |

Eden Sabolboro & Desmond Love

Filmmakers Desmond Love and Eden Sabolboro illuminate the world of visual artist Senghor Reid, who draws inspiration for his paintings from current events and from his hometown of Detroit. Reid’s colorful and evocative paintings of human subjects in strange yet familiar environments inspire audiences with future visions of hope and possibility.

The Great Wake | 9 min. |

Charlie Klipp & Mario Cassem

On Halloween, a grief dream reunites a young programmer with his lost Player 2. Based on a true story of loss and life.

Toxic Art | 15 min. |

Jason Whalen & Chris Zuker

Acid mine drainage is a pervasive problem in American Appalachia, poisoning streams and killing wildlife. The technology and funding to remove these pollutants and bring life back to streams just didn’t exist, that is, until fine art painter and professor John Sabraw rallied a team to address the issue in their local stream and developed a breakthrough process to upcycle pollutants into paint pigments.

Love and Lake | 10 min. |

Nick Lusardi & Hannah Tracey

A college freshman searches his childhood memories for a common romance.

Marqueetown Part One Excerpt | 20 min. |

Joe Beyer and Jordan Anderson

No one fights to preserve a multiplex, but some people will risk everything to save a marquee. Through booms and busts, Delft Theatres Inc. and its innovative gem, The Nordic – endured in Marquette for almost 100 years, even as the world changed endlessly around them.

Films that focus specifically on the Great Lakes

The Michigan premier of RELENTLESS. Written, directed and produced by Thomas Lindsey Haskin and narrated by Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons, this film tells the fascinating true story about remarkable people tackling an exotic species invasion that nearly destroyed the Great Lakes. 

If you don’t think invasive species are a danger to the Great Lakes, then this film will enlighten you. This silent predator devastated jobs and businesses, threatened the survival of cities, towns and indigenous communities across the region. The film traces how scientists identified the species in the 1960s then struggled to control it. The Wednesday, January 24 screening of RELENTLESS took place in Rogers City, which is located just south of Lake Huron’s Hammond Bay where fishery scientists took up the challenge of controlling sea lamprey at a laboratory that still stands today.

Another Great Lakes focused entry was Crossing Ontario: The End. This is the latest in a 6-part series – and the final installment of a 9-year project – Paddling the Great Lakes series by Emmy award-winning photojournalist and documentary producer, Corey Adkins. Crossing Ontario: The End was shown on Friday, January 26 as part of the Great Lakes Gala Reception & Films, which took place at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena from 6-9pm.

Another unique aspect of this festival is the Student Film Competition. In its sixth year, students in grades 6 through 12 are invited to submit a short film, three minutes or less, related to “Life in the Great Lakes.” There is no entry fee for this submission and selected films were shown at the festival on Saturday, January 27.

In all, there were 68 films a part of this year’s festival being shown in three venues across Alpena, Rogers City and Harrisville.

2024 costs to attend the festival:

All Access Thunder Pass: $125
Valid for the Entire Festival

Wednesday, January 24: $10
TBIFF on the Road
Rogers Theater, Rogers City

Thursday, January 25: $10
TBIFF on the Road
Alcona County Library, Harrisville

Friday, January 26: $30
Great Lakes Gala: Reception & Films
Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, Alpena

Saturday, January 27
Films screened all day
Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, Alpena

Saturday, January 27: FREE
Student Films & Filmmakers’ Panel
Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, Alpena

Saturday, January 27: $20
Sanctuary Selections Film Competition
with The Sunset Project

Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, Alpena

Sunday, January 28
Films screened all day
Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, Alpena

For more information about the festival, visit Friends of Thunder Bay. View the full schedule here. For more information on all of our national sanctuaries, visit NOAA website. To learn more about Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary including educational classes and tours, visit their website.

Photos and Trailers courtesy of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and The Sunset Project.

Gallary of Film Festival Movie Posters

Tamara Graham
Tamara Graham
With an adventurous spirit and a burning desire to make the world work for all of us, Tamara encourages others to embrace self-love, compassion, empathy, understanding, and an ever important sense of humor. With over 30 years of diverse marketing experience, including a decade in publishing, she brings a fresh and innovative perspective to the industry. Her concept revolves around experiential magazines that captivate both online and in print. Tamara's visionary project, LIVE. LOVE. LOCAL. MICHIGAN™, unveils the wonders of our breathtaking home state, igniting love and admiration among Michiganders for where they live. By fostering this deep connection, she inspires a genuine appreciation and love for where we live!
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