Floating across the horizon of the Southern California coastline, the eight Channel Islands — which stretch from San Miguel Island south of Point Conception down to San Clemente Island west of San Diego — are both a constant presence and curious puzzle for most mainlanders. Especially here in Santa Barbara, we see them daily, but many know very little about them, and a surprising few have set foot on their shores.
That’s started to change in recent years, with more publicity about how to visit the northern islands, which are run by the National Park Service, and lots of headlines about sometimes controversial programs to save their rare species. But that growing awareness is primarily focused on exploring and protecting nature, not so much concerned about the people who’ve lived and worked on the islands for literally millennia.
Prepare, then, for a new era of island appreciation. The upcoming release of West of the West: Tales from California’s Channel Islands will shine a bright, meticulously crafted light on the islands’ fascinating human history. Broken into three one-hour segments covering 14 chapters, the documentary’s ambitious scope spans from the earliest Chumash inhabitants and explorers, such as Juan Cabrillo, to the ranchers, rock stars, archaeologists, authors, dreamers, and deep-sea divers who’ve become intertwined into the lore of this awesome archipelago.
These tales will premiere to thousands next weekend, March 5-6, during multiple screenings at the Arlington Theatre, but that will just be the start for West of the West. Expect to see it on televisions screens and in classrooms for years to come, as PBS and school districts across California and the country are already lining up to share this project with the broader masses.
Near-Death to Documentary
The path of the project’s visionary, Brent Sumner, typifies the usual arc for those of us who become Channel Island fanatics, moving from casual curiosity to utter obsession overnight. When the filmmaker — best known locally for his work on Citizen McCaw, the documentary that covered the ethical and journalistic breakdown of the News-Press nearly a decade ago — moved to town in 1996, he didn’t think so much about those hunks of land offshore. But when his eyes were opened six years ago, the 49-year-old originally from Phoenix began using this documentary as a means of quenching an insatiable thirst for island stories.
Sumner’s initial discovery came during a near tragedy while scuba diving in 2010, when his weight belt got stuck in the kelp as he chased a seal in about 40 feet of water off of Santa Cruz Island. He “popped to the surface like a cork,” fainted when he got home, and made his way to the hospital, fearing he’d caught the bends. While waiting for his diagnosis — no bends, thankfully—Sumner “started googling this place that I felt almost took my life.” He was soon reading two memoirs, Diary of a Sea Captain’s Wife (about Ira and Margaret Eaton’s development of Pelican Bay on Santa Cruz) and The Legendary King of San Miguel (about Herbert Lester’s time on that wind-whipped isle), and then everything else he could find.
“I became feverish about reading all this stuff,” said Sumner, who started asking people at parties what they knew about the islands, which wasn’t much. “They didn’t know people lived out there. They didn’t know how many there were,” he recalled. “I wasn’t far from them. It took me 16 years to go out there. But the more I read, the more I became convinced that it was a good story.”
His attempts to enlist Citizen McCaw colleagues, producer Sam Tyler and screenwriter Peter Seaman, weren’t successful — they were happily retired and failed to see a story line. But in 2012, Tyler changed his mind and soon gained the support of the S.B. Maritime Museum and Santa Cruz Island Foundation, both of which balked when just Sumner asked for help. “I call him ‘Darth Tyler,’” said Sumner of Sam. “He just walks into the room and says, ‘You will fund this film.’ Things started happening like that.”
Desperado to Fulfilled Dream
With financial and logistical avenues paved, Sumner and Tyler attended the Feast of the Holy Cross inside Santa Cruz Island’s historic chapel in 2012, and the project kicked into high gear when they saw rock star Joe Walsh of the Eagles (whose island connection is detailed here) sing “Desperado” during the annual mass. “It was mind-blowing,” said Sumner, caught up by the wash of culture and religion, history and humanity. “Everyone was there because they love these islands. There was a juxtaposed spiritual moment, and I got it. This is what it’s all about.”
On the way home, they called Seaman — a big Joe Walsh fan, incidentally — and he was in. Six months of research were followed by two and a half years of shooting. “We were pretty methodical,” said Sumner, knowing that valuable sources like Betsy Lester wouldn’t be around forever. “We wanted to have something that would be archival.”
To tell the myriad stories, they decided to have sources function as first-person narrators. “That was way more intriguing but very hard to do,” said Sumner, crediting Seaman for forging that path. “That was Peter’s genius.” And rather than one 90-minute feature film, which would have left too much on the cutting-room floor, they opted for three one-hour episodes wrapped around the 14 tales. But they could have done a fourth hour easily, with enough time and money, and probably many more. “The more I dig, the more that I find so much significance to those islands,” said Sumner, noting that impacts go back to the peopling of the Americas, as the hemisphere’s oldest bones were found at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island. “It even changes the way we think about early man.”
They hope West of the West will prompt more people to learn about and visit the Channel Islands, and Sumner admits that, selfishly, it would be great if the films are so beloved that he has to continue his work there. But all three men made a pact years ago to pursue the project for personal rather than professional vindication. “We did this for ourselves,” said Sumner. “There’s really no money, and it was a lot of hard work, but we did it because we fell in love with these stories. It was my big excuse to go to the islands and learn these stories from the people who actually lived them, and it’s fulfilled that desire.”
West of the West World Premiere
When: Sat., Mar. 5, 7:30pm (SOLD OUT); Sun., Mar. 6, 2pm (for registered students; contact your children’s principal!) and 7pm ($28 tickets still available!)
Where: Arlington Theatre (thearlingtontheatre.com)
When: Free screenings of 100-minute edited version on Sun., Mar. 6, starting at noon; sponsored by Channel Islands National Park
Where: Century 10 Downtown, 555 E. Main St., Ventura