Q&A on the Thunder Bay International Film Festival

From January 22nd to 26th, the center of the ocean and Great Lakes film universe will be Alpena, MI, on the shores of Lake Huron, home of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Each year, the Thunder Bay International Film Festival brings the best ocean and Great Lakes themed films and filmmakers together to tell the stories of these amazing places. Film screenings are accompanied by social event and educational activities in a celebration of all things underwater, on the water, or by the water.

Katie Wolf supports education and community outreach efforts for Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, including events like Thunder Bay International Film Festival, and was generous enough to answer some questions about what makes the festival so great:


How does the film festival fit with the rest of the work of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary? 

Education and research are at the heart of marine sanctuaries’ mission to protect the Great Lakes and ocean. Film is a very powerful, immersive media for engaging the public in the many different facets of our work. Whether the focus is recreation, conservation, research, or maritime history, these films open your eyes to just how magnificent, dynamic, complex, and vital our relationship to water and its underwater treasures truly are. The Thunder Bay International Film Festival has become one of our most effective venues for connecting people to our mission.

What makes the film festival such a great showcase for the ocean and Great Lakes?

The combination of cinematography and storytelling from diverse perspectives can be spellbinding, as well as thought provoking. With more than 50 films, the festival is a multisensory smorgasbord that whets your appetite to learn more, explore more, and do more to protect these precious waters and the life they support.

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?

I love it all, but the student short film competition is magical for me. Watching the students have their short documentaries viewed on the big screen by their families and peers is so inspiring. The films give you a personal glance into the minds, hearts, and vision of our emerging conservation leaders, and you can’t help but leave the theater feeling hopeful for the future.

How can people take part in the fun?

Stephanie Gandulla, who heads up the coordination of the film festival, strives every year to expand our reach, providing more ways for youth and adults to participate. Different films are featured in three cities located along the sanctuary shoreline, Rogers City, Harrisville and Alpena. The week before the festival starts, staff take the show on the road to multiple school districts. More than a thousand 6th-12th graders have a chance to experience the films. This year, all students can attend any of the film festival events for free.

On January 16th, a “Sneak Peak” evening event will be held at a local art venue to showcase a selection of movie trailers. We hope this social event will help build anticipation for when the festival officially kicks off the following week. The “Great Lakes Gala” is held at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena on Friday, January 24th . The gala includes special recognition of all of our sponsors, including the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and delicious, locally sourced food and beverages. A reception with food and beverages is also held on Saturday night.

More filmmakers are attending this year than ever before which provides a great opportunity for aspiring filmmakers to interact with experienced professionals. Some of those aspiring filmmakers include students participating in the Student Film Competition program which is open to the public on Saturday afternoon. The theme is “Great Lakes are…” This is a very popular event so if you want a seat, come early.

The full schedule is available online at thunderbayfriends.org. Tickets are available for purchase online, at the Sanctuary Store, or by phone (989-884-6200). For the best deal, purchasing a “Thunder Pass” provides access to all of the festival events held throughout the five-day festival. A lot of snowbirds who head south for the winter, stick around up north until after the film festival. They appreciate that this is the only place they can see such an incredible selection of films about our Great Lakes and ocean. For those who love all things water, this is the place to be the last weekend of January!