Film director Liz Witham documented a veritable Martha’s Vineyard cliff hanger as her community worked to save the island’s iconic Gay Head Lighthouse.
Her film, “Keepers of the Light,” was five years in the making and is as much about a building as it is cultural identity, maritime history and public service. It tells highly personal stories about a highly technical event — moving the brick lighthouse, weighing almost 500 tons, 129 feet away from the edge of the oceanside cliff.
Witham was raised in and currently resides in Aquinnah, the Vineyard town where the lighthouse is located. She hails from a legendary family in which “everyone was expressing themselves in a creative way.” Her mother, Kate Taylor, a popular jewelry designer in her own right, is the sister of Livingston Taylor and James Taylor, and, like her siblings, is also a singer-songwriter. Witham’s interest in and pursuit into the movie business felt logical: it was an organic channel in which to sound her own voice.
Witham formed Film-Truth Productions — an independent media company that creates original documentaries — with her husband Ken Wentworth. At times, they have each played the roles of director, producer, cinematographer and/or editor, and each has worked for other producers in various roles. Wentworth co-produced “Keepers of the Light” with Witham.
“In the world of documentary filmmaking, there are so many examples of fantastic women directors and producers. I think it’s a wonderful field to be in as a woman. Is there still work to do?” asks Witham, “Yes. There are certain areas of technical knowledge that some assume are in the dominion of male expertise. There are occasions that I’ve been hired by other production companies where credit for my work contribution was perhaps not equally represented. When I’m going about my filmmaking work, and my life in general, I don’t think of myself through the prism of gender, but as a quirky consciousness embodied in human form. I may not notice gender discrepancy issues simply because I conceptualize myself as a filmmaker. No gender required.”
When I’m going about my filmmaking work, and my life in general, I don’t think of myself through the prism of a gender, but as a quarky consciousness embodied in human form. I may not notice gender discrepancy issues simply because I conceptualize myself as a filmmaker. No gender required. — Liz Witham
Inquisitiveness and entrepreneurial spirit had Witham spotting opportunity long before the actual lighthouse move. In the film, she captures long-time lightkeeper Richard Skidmore as he relates the exact point in time where a decision to move the light could no longer be put off. Erosion on island coastlines is a fact of life, and Aquinnah’s receding cliffs put Gay Head Lighthouse in peril. One morning, Skidmore arrived at the lighthouse and saw that, overnight, 40 feet of fencing parallel to the coast had collapsed along with the edge of the cliff, meaning the lighthouse was now only 46 feet from the precipice. Something had to be done. Either move it or lose it.
“I do believe historic preservation is important,” says Witham. “In this case, the lighthouse is a symbol of the community, a beacon of its collective stories. Without the building, the shared histories of time, space and culture might have slowly disappeared.” “Keepers of the Light” brings an insider view to the many aspects of Gay Head Lighthouse and the successful effort to save it from the sea.
I do believe historic preservation is important. In this case, the lighthouse is a symbol of the community, a beacon of its collective stories. Without the building, the shared histories of time, space, and culture might have slowly disappeared. — Liz Witham
“Keepers of the Light” could not have been a more obvious subject for Witham to take on. Aquinnah is a tight-knit island community, and the ancestral home of the Wampanoag Tribe. While she’s not Native American herself, she grew up with the extended-family notion that has developed over generations in this beautiful island hamlet.
Witham and her team reached out to a number Wampanoag, who relate family stories about the lighthouse. The tribe has been living in Aquinnah for thousands of years. They discuss the business of maintaining it, creating artisan crafts, transportation and hospitality for the tourist trade, seagoing careers during the whaling industry, and saving lives of shipwreck survivors. Witham supplemented Film-Truth’s own research by also including the observations of the members of the committee formed to save the lighthouse, the engineers responsible for moving it, and maritime historians who place the light in a broader American context.
Captain Buddy Vanderhoop, a descendent of the light’s first Native American keeper, has been running a fishing charter in the waters off the famous colored cliffs of Aquinnah for over 45 years. Vanderhoop explains that East Coast shipping lanes were as busy as I-95. Many ships pass through “Devil’s Bridge,” the very narrow 15 foot channel just off Aquinnah, where two currents swirl and clash together around the tip of the island. The lighthouse was and is crucial for navigating this picturesque, but dangerous, sea.
Witham and Wentworth have moved onto their next project, again staying close to the sea. Working with experts from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, they’ll be tracing the endangered Atlantic Right Whale population as they migrate from Florida up the shores of the East Coast. Collaborating with researchers whose knowledge is so detailed they can virtually identify specific whales of this very small population, the project promises a to provide rich material for the duo’s new documentary.
Witham’s “Keepers of the Light” premiered in 2018 at the Woods Hole Film Festival, with WGBH broadcasts this past November.