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‘Lost Springs’ documents one artist’s quest to capture Florida springs drowned by purposeless dam


The 8th Annual Fort Myers Film Festival takes place March 21-25, 2018. Among the more than 90 films that will be screened during the festival’s five-day run is Lost Springs, a 40-minute Matt Keene documentary that follows artist Margaret Ross Tolbert as she experiences a collection of “drowned” freshwater Florida springs normally inaccessible due to a dam.

Those springs feed the Ocklawaha River, a 74-mile-long serpentine waterway that flows north from central Florida until it joins the St. Johns River near Palatka. The river was incorporated into the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal system that was halted due to environmental concerns by an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon in 1971. But by then, the cross-country section from the St. Johns River to the Ocklawaha River was in place, with the springs feeding the Ocklawaha being submerged beneath the backwaters created by the earthen Rodman (Kirkpatrick) and Eureka Dams, which were constructed in the 1960s for the sole purpose of creating a navigation pool deep enough to accommodate barge traffic. But the lost springs of the Ocklawaha River awaken every three to five years during a months-long drawdown at the Kirkpatrick (Rodman) Dam.

During the 2015-2016 drawdown, artist Margaret Tolbert and filmmaker Matt Keene traveled to the Ocklawaha to capture the magic of their rebirth, both on canvas and on film. The film explores themes of loss, wonder and experience in nature as it exposes a submerged world normally hidden below the high waters of the dam. Tolbert sketches and paints scenes from this world, looks into the history of the dam and the impacted Ocklawaha River, and joins a team of local and regional experts on a boat trip upriver to witness the revealed and transient landscape to find the lost springs of the Ocklawaha.

Thematically, Lost Springs observes the uniqueness of this historic and free-flowing river while asserting its importance to the State of Florida. It celebrates the wonder of Florida springs through Tolbert’s original paintings of the Ocklawaha’s springs and through a first-ever filmed cave dive of the Ocklawaha’s Tobacco Patch Springs by cave-diving experts Mark Long and Tom Morris. It explains the history of the Cross Florida Barge Canal and the environmentalists who stopped its construction, and steps back even farther in time to highlight its significance throughout history as a free-flowing river by speaking with experts about its archaeological, paleontological and indigenous importance and even examines a cultural exploration by former President Ulysses S. Grant and artist Frank Hamilton Taylor.

This is a film that engages its audience through beauty. It was filmed in a manner to showcase the strained and damaged state of the river, but also to show the hopes and joy of those who visit the waterway during a drawdown, to show their longing to jump into the river’s springs, to show how experience in nature brings healing and connection. This film speaks to environmentalists, to artists, to Floridians and those concerned with environmental issues, and it is just as inviting and discernible to those with little to no knowledge of the dam and river.

Lost Springs provides a different perspective from typical environmental issue-oriented films. Tolbert’s enthusiasm for the springs is magnetic, and personal stories from locals like Captain Erika Ritter are emotionally-charged, braiding together a powerful story with an environmental message. As such, it will provide a new and encouraging entry point for reaching an audience on environmental issues.

Lost Springs premiered in September of 2017 at Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art and has been called an “aesthetic case for restoration.” You will have two chances to view the documentary during the Fort Myers Film Festival. The first is at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 24. The second is at the IMAG History & Science Center at 2000 Cranford Ave. during the 5:30 p.m. block on Saturday, March 24.

March 7, 2018.


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