When Chicago filmmaker George Desort began his documentary on the 50 inland lakes of Isle Royale, he started with a scientific approach.
“It became clear very quickly – I was making the world’s most boring film,” Desort said. “I had such a connection with the island. I wanted it to be personal. So I made the film I’d always wanted to make, a film about why people go into the wilderness.”
So the project changed to a film that includes the lakes, but is not about the lakes, said Desort.
“Fifty Lakes One Island” weaves together the lakes, the vegetation and wildlife with still and time-lapse photography.
Desort narrates the film. His video diary entries are an integral part of the story as he shares personal anecdotes and reflections of his surroundings.
“I wanted to create a project that encouraged people to connect to a place, whether that be nature or elsewhere, anywhere they can be grounded, confident and happy,” Desort explained. “I think that’s so important for the human soul.”
Desort has a history with the island – he worked with researchers studying the interactions and interdependence of wolves and moose at Isle Royale National Park, spending four years gathering material for his documentary “Fortunate Wilderness.”
The film was heavily science-based, said Desort, and not nearly as personal as “Fifty Lakes One Island,” which he affectionately calls a “treasure hunt.”
In 2011, after raising $10,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign, Desort spent eighty days living on Isle Royale, exploring its lakes in two forty-day expeditions.
Fundraising money bought him solar equipment, which enabled him to charge his cameras, laptop and hard drives while camping on the island. He also brought his sister’s tent, his kayak, a supply of clothing and food and only two pairs of shoes.
“My initial plan was to get a big boat,” Desort recalled. “But the more I thought about it, a big boat to access little coves and romantic beaches wasn’t practical. I was glad I stuck with my kayak.”
Living on Isle Royale in the spring and then fall of 2011, Desort was in his element. At one point in the film, he describes how alive he felt, claiming “I’m so happy, and I have so much energy. It’s just amazing how great I feel.”
The process was not without its challenges. Desort describes in the film moments when he felt sore, fatigued or hungry, and viewers can see his hikes through miles of steep terrain, and his trips on his kayak, often paddling through strong wind and waves.
Still, Desort maintains unwavering optimism throughout the film.
“Each lake is incredibly special to me,” he said. “You’re often creating your own trail. The first ten lakes I found simply by using a map and compass, which was so satisfying. I did turn to GPS eventually.”
He also found comfort in the isolation of the island.
“It’s so hard to find a place to be quiet and alone these days,” said Desort, who read books when he wasn’t exploring. “Of course you miss friends and loved ones, but your mind and body adapt.
“You get in a rhythm. After about day 10, you almost don’t want to see anyone,” he said.
The film has already screened in Madison, Wis., and will premiere in the Chopin Theater in Chicago on Wednesday, May 22nd.
The film will be screened in Duluth, Minn. and at Michigan Technological University later in the summer.
Though Desort said he was sometimes anxious to watch his film in front of others, he was glad to see a positive response.
“It seemed to go over really well. One guy came up to me and admitted he’d been moved to tears after seeing me talk about my dad,” he said. “I really tried to tell personal stories with themes that resonate with all of us.”
When asked his favorite moment of the filmmaking process, Desort found it difficult to settle on just one.
“The most challenging day was a day I paddled eighteen hours straight,” he described. “It was the most challenging but also the most fun. The water was as calm as could be. You lose track of time. You lose track of yourself.”