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IU Northwest proud to claim connection to acclaimed local documentary

Two alumni make up half of production crew on Grand Kankakee Marsh story, ‘Everglades of the North,’ now scheduled for a run at The Field Museum

Thursday Jan 17, 2013


In November, WYIN - Lakeshore Public Television debuted “Everglades of the North,” a documentary about the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which once saturated nearly a million acres in Northern Indiana and part of Illinois.

The team of local filmmakers, which includes two Indiana University Northwest alumni, weaves a historical account of the marsh, once home to some of the highest concentrations of wildlife on the planet. Though only a fraction of this wetland survives today, the filmmakers tell us, all is not lost.

To view the film's trailer, click here.

As the trailer describes, the film reveals “the diverse ecology, illustrates the astonishing history, and explores the controversial saga of the Grand Kankakee Marsh in how people have used and perceived this wetland for more than 10,000 years.”

Pat Wisniewski of Valparaiso, who graduated from IU Northwest in 2009 with a degree in Communication, and Brian Kallies, a Cedar Lake native who earned an associate’s degree in psychology from IU Northwest in 1996, are among the four-person crew that worked full time for three years to bring the story to film. They were joined by two other local folks: Jeff Manes, of Lowell, and Tom Desch, a native of Herscher, Ill.

Although the film is finally finished after three years of production, the crew is busier than ever as word spreads and the team works to broaden the documentary’s exposure.

For those who missed the premiere, which drew upwards of 400 people to a Lowell venue in November, there are still more chances to view the film. Lakeshore’s South Bend affiliate, WNIT, will show the film at 6 p.m. EST, Sunday, Jan. 20. The Field Museum in Chicago will show the film and host a panel discussion at 6 p.m., Tuesday, February 26.

A ‘Labor of Love’

Determined to tell the marsh’s story, the crew set out on a years-long journey. As the film evolved, so did the crew members and their skills.

Wisniewski is a former steelworker who decided to chart a new life course and pursue communications at IU Northwest. Soon after she graduated, a former steelworker colleague, Jeff Manes, approached her with the idea of telling the story of the marsh. Manes, a syndicated columnist, served as the film’s primary writer.

Wisniewski said she was intrigued by the environmental treasure that had once attracted high-profile statesmen and even U.S. presidents who traveled there to hunt and fish.

“I was fascinated. I had no idea this was right here in our backyard,” she said.

The duo borrowed a camera and began interviewing. Interest in the project grew, and it became apparent that they needed to recruit some experienced technical help.

That’s where Brian Kallies came in. Kallies had hired Wisniewski as an intern when he worked at Lakeshore Public Television. Wisniewski knew that Kallies had the technical savvy, as well as a creative stroke of genius, that would serve the story well. Kallies has produced work for PBS, WGN and Showtime.

“As I learned more about the project,” Kallies said, “I got the bug and I really wanted to make this story.”

Tom Desch, another former Lakeshore staffer, came on board as well. His credits include films for PBS, the Biography Channel and Animal Planet.

One of Wisniewski’s favorite jobs was that of wildlife photographer, and she valued the experience of wading through the cold marsh before sunset to capture the best footage.

Typically, documentaries of this caliber have long lists of people to credit, Wisniewski said. The four of them pooled their expertise and resources to accomplish the long list of tasks required.

“We shot, edited, rolled, learned and grasped from each other and we became a good team,” Wisniewski said.

A captivating history

Wisniewski explained that it wasn’t the steel mills that changed the marsh, but rather, early settlers and land speculators who perceived the mosquito-infested marsh as an obstacle. They dredged and straightened the Kankakee River and drained the marsh for farming and settlement. Many of the changes came from people who tried to make money off of the speculation of draining the marsh and selling the land for a profit.

Now, Wisniewski explained, revelations about the role of the marsh are resulting in a rebirth.

“Now that people understand the purpose of a marsh, and what they do for us, they are coming back,” Wisniewski said, “We show the balance and how birds that we haven’t seen in 50 or 60 years are coming back.”

The marsh’s nickname, “Everglades of the North,” refers to its similarities to the Florida Everglades.

But the documentary is more than a story about a marsh, Wisniewski explained. It is also a great historical piece about the Midwest.

“We weave a great historical story right through an environmental story,” she said.

IU Northwest Assistant Professor of Biology Pete Avis, Ph.D., whose work centers largely on ecological destruction and restoration, praised the filmmakers for raising public awareness of such an important issue. He said the film provides a good model and context for other such historical ecology stories that deserve exposure.

“Take the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for instance,” Avis said. “A similar history can be told about the development of industry here and the efforts to maintain the area’s ecology. For example, I think industry is a double-edged sword. It may have brought some amount of protection to neighboring habitats that might otherwise have become suburbs. Others might disagree. I would be interested in the historical account of the Dunes’ environmental struggles.”

Funding for the film came from a variety of sources, starting with $10 out of an elderly library patron’s purse, and including significant support from environmental groups, foundations and individuals.

For a complete list of film sponsors, as well as more information about the film and the filmmakers, and to view the film’s trailer, visit www.kankakeemarsh.com/.

View the film trailer:


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