THE WEIR is a proposed feature-length, verité exploration of sustainability and identity as a fishing tradition is passed to the next generation at a time of environmental and social change.
Since 1953, the Eldredge family has operated a fishing weir in Chatham, MA. Now one of the only active weirs in the United States, this ancient fishing method is essentially an underwater trap that attracts all manner of fish into a nearly million square-foot area. The fish can escape the same way they entered, but rarely do so—living in schools in the weir until the fishermen scoop them up in nets.
Using a minimum of fossil fuels, the fishermen only take what they can sell each day, avoiding bycatch of unwanted or undersized fish and making use of underutilized species like scup and dogfish. The Eldredges sell their catch dockside, but due to a lack of local demand for lesser-known species, some of the fish winds up in New York’s Fulton Market.
Through the eyes of Shannon Eldredge, her father Ernie Eldredge and her partner Russell Kingman, viewers experience the extremely hard work of setting up and fishing the weir. From the rawness of an April dawn to a pleasant sunny day in June, viewers share the fishermen’s emotions of hope and pride, disappointment and satisfaction, regret and frustration as the weirs are placed, the nets are set, and the catch comes in—or doesn’t.
Since the weir cannot remain in place year-round, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to set up and take down each season, with diminishing financial reward. As temperature sensors placed on the nets indicate, warming in-shore waters translate to fewer market fish. The weir also provides fodder for a burgeoning seal population, putting the fishermen in direct competition with a protected marine mammal.
Working with biologist Owen Nichols, director of marine research at the Center for Coastal Studies, the family faces the facts of climate change and ecosystem dynamics, while asserting their right to a place on the food chain.
People might think we’re foolish. But I think weir fishing lives in me. I love it because it’s part of my basic existence. Part of my soul.
– Shannon Eldredge
For two educated and well-traveled people, the weir is their own voluntarily-entered trap, less about making a living and more about living in accordance with their history and beliefs. Keeping authenticity alive becomes even more crucial as they’re forced to sell their family’s fish pier to a town that’s becoming a parody of Olde Cape Cod charm. Shannon and Russell’s candid comments while fishing, making dinner from the day’s catch, or driving around Chatham offer insight into their motivations for keeping up their lifestyle, despite the costs.
The cycle of the fishing season provides a natural narrative arc for telling the story of the weir. From anticipation and setup in spring to tough-luck fishing throughout the spring/summer, take-down of the weir in the fall and a period of rest, repair and reflection in the winter, we anticipate a taking an direct-cinema approach that unfolds with the passage of time.
Our subjects’ inner characters are revealed in observational scenes that demonstrate an uncommon commitment to their lifestyle: getting up at the crack of dawn for another back-breaking day of work, cooperating (despite frustrations) for the greater good, private moments of reflection on the beauty of their surroundings, and the simple pleasure of sharing a meal prepared from the day’s catch.
We witness a playful dimension at Shannon and Russell’s band practice with The Seafire Kids, and weave in conversations with Shannon as she creates baskets from discarded rope for her side business, or with Russell as he tinkers with boat engines. Photographs by Shannon’s mother, Shareen, give insights into the family’s on-the-water past and illustrate Ernie’s inner thoughts about passing the torch to his youngest daughter.
The character of Cape Cod itself is central to this story, and is prominently featured in meditative shots on the water, shoreline and around the community. Where possible, wildlife (seals, sharks, birds, turtles, fish of all kinds) indicate humans’ place in the greater ecosystem, nuanced by underwater scenes of the world inside and outside the trap. Long, observational takes of life in Chatham throughout the summer and winter seasons provide context and contrast: the voluntary hardship, isolation, and strong community ties of the fishermen are weighed against a backdrop of ostentatious wealth and tastefully disguised inequality.
THE WEIR hits on several themes that have relevance and resonance with a diversity of viewers. On the water scenes serve to connect viewers with a sustainable method of capturing fish, addressing the question of not only “where does your food come from?” but also “how was it caught?” Observations from the fishermen and researchers give context to the greater system that supports a healthy fishery, in which humans and squid, seals and sharks are all interconnected.
Yet as we present this “sustainable” method of catching fish, we’re drawn into a fishing family’s highly precarious world, subject to the whims of nature and the market, and further pressured due to climate change and a shifting ecosystem. Through this family’s lens, we explore “sustainability” in the larger sense of the word, examining identity and community as part of the human ecosystem.
How does the Eldredge family’s drive to maintain their way of life measure against the seals’ natural instincts? How much business sense does it make to fish with a labor-intensive weir? How sustainable are weir-caught fish when most of the catch is trucked to New York, 300 miles away? And as water temperatures and sea levels rise, how much longer can the family hold onto its traditions?
The Eldredge family’s struggle to maintain the weir is contextualized by living in a community that has traded most of its fishing/maritime heritage for seasonal tourism and luxury homebuilding. Against this backdrop, our goal is for viewers to gain greater understanding of the complex ecosystem that supports their fantasy vacation, and how families like the Eldredges find a way to survive despite financial pressures.
Through their experience, we explore society’s emphasis on security over identity, rootlessness over community, and individual freedoms over family responsibility. Our goal is for the subjects’ deep-rooted commitment to fishing to serve as inspiration to viewers, who may come away questioning their own life choices.
Supported by a grant from the LEF Foundation Moving Image Fund (2017)