Photo Provided - Tom Desch, co-producer on an upcoming WNIT documentary about the St. Joseph River, films the river on location in Three Rivers during a production day. The hour-long documentary, with the working title of “The Giving Stream: The Story of the St. Joseph River”, is slated to premiere in towns along the St. Joseph River on Saturday, Aug. 28.Photo provided - Rebecca Shank, historian at the Sue Silliman House in Three Rivers, explores photos of the St. Joseph River with documentary producers for WNIT.

St. Joseph River documentary in the works

Premiere scheduled for August

THREE RIVERS — The St. Joseph River and the communities that surround it have a long and winding history, like the river itself.

That history, along with a look at the environment of the St. Joseph River watershed, is the subject of a new documentary being produced by a local PBS station that is scheduled to premiere in locales along the river in August.

The documentary, under the working title of “The Giving Stream: The Story of the St. Joseph River”, is being produced by regional Emmy-nominated documentarians Patty Wisniewski and Tom Desch in collaboration with the PBS station WNIT-TV out of South Bend, Ind. The documentary aims to tell the history of the river and how it impacted the lives and communities of the area.

“The whole thing focuses on what we want to create, which is a documentary that fully tells the story of the St. Joseph River and how it just unites us all, from Hillsdale County to Benton Harbor, Mich.,” WNIT President and General Manager Greg Giczi said. “One of our mission points is connecting communities, and I thank the St. Joseph River for a lot of the communities, maybe the largest percentage of communities, in our coverage areas. The thread that connects us is the St. Joseph River.”

The documentary was the brainchild of Giczi, who said the idea for a feature on the river was one that was “rolling around in my brain” for more than three years.

“It was just back there, and it came to the surface once I saw something that Patty and Tom had been involved in producing about another river,” Giczi said. “So, I decided to put this on the frontburner."

Wisniewski has had plenty of experience telling stories about local environments. She was nominated for a Chicago Midwest Emmy in 2012 for her work on “The Everglades of the North,” a documentary about the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which was one of the largest marshes in North America, located between Indiana and Illinois. She also made a documentary on the Indiana Dunes called “Shifting Sands,” about the conflict between industry and saving the natural areas around the Dunes, a documentary which she was told by a park ranger was the impetus for Congress to give National Park status to the Dunes in 2019.

“Above anything, what [Wisniewski and Desch] are are exceptional storytellers, and Patty especially is a great researcher,” Giczi said. “They'll go in and they'll tell a wonderful story.”

Wisniewski said the documentary, projected to be around an hour long, will cover a variety of subjects about the river, from the early settlement of the area by the Potawatomi Indians who dreamed of finding a place where “food grows on water,” to the early settlements by explorers, the industrialization of the river and how communities grew around it. Ultimately, the documentary comes back to what Wisniewski called a “river story.”

“At the end, we come back to a river story and how people have used the river, what it did to the river and how it changed the river, a river that's now dammed up in a lot of areas to pollution of the industrial era, and to now people turning back to the river as a source of enjoyment and recreation and wanting to keep it clean and cleaning up,” Wisniewski said. “Basically, it's our effect on the environment, how we have used it and what it has given to us, and how we can preserve it.”

Wisniewski said while researching and producing the documentary, she had many different “wow moments” about the river and its history. These include everything from meeting different people excited by the river and history, how the number of fish species increased from two or three to 70 in the last 100 years and the stories of archaeological digs near the site of Fort St. Joseph, to how the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians envision sustainability and how the Twin Branch Hydroelectric Plant in Mishawaka, Ind. used the river’s power to send electricity to places like Boston and Florida.

“There's so much, and we can't cover it all in an hour, so the hour is going to be what I call the cliff notes, to get you interested, the wow moments of the story, and then from there, we can branch out where each little community can tell the much larger story that exists in each one of these communities down the river,” Wisniewski said.

Historians from the St. Joseph County area also helped contribute to the documentary, including Holly Stephenson of the St. Joseph County Historical Society and Rebecca Shank from the Sue Silliman House in Three Rivers. Wisniewski thanked both for their contributions.

“[Shank] was just amazing, she found people, she helped us, and she gave us access to their archives and photographs and all of these things. Holly Stephenson, another St. Joseph County historian, we out to the Marantette Home and did filming there, so we got pieces of that history there and interviewed her,” Wisniewski said. “So far, in that county, those two people have been really helpful.”

Production of the documentary is currently “in the middle stages,” Wisniewski said, saying they were about “75 percent” done with interviews and B-roll. Currently, they said they are in the process of writing the film, with the potential of their crew coming back to certain places to “fill in the blanks” of anything they might’ve missed later.

“We'll come back and fill in whatever blanks we have, because we may want to talk to that person or we're missing this piece, so we'll come in the spring, fill in those missing pieces and hopefully have it in place in July, ready for the August premiere,” Wisniewski said.

Giczi said the documentary is scheduled for a community premiere in several different locales on Saturday, Aug. 28, including Three Rivers at a place to be determined. WNIT is slated to air the documentary on its station the week after. He said he’s had plenty of ideas to try to promote the documentary in the different communities along the river as part of a campaign he dubbed “Celebrate the St. Joe,” including collaborations with local museums, libraries, parks, schools, regional tourism organizations, restaurants and more to come up with ways to get the community involved and excited about the river.

“Because it was based on the initial working title of ‘Celebrate the St. Joe,’ I picked up on that theme and thought, what if we organized the communities from the headwaters all the way to the mouth?” Giczi said. “Initially, I was thinking of a common community premiere date where I could provide final copies of the documentary to the communities, which we settled on as Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. I then started expanding the concept of, what if we had a whole day of celebrations that day, or if a community wanted to do a weekend, or make the whole summer of ‘Celebrate the St. Joe’ so things can go on all the time?”

Both Giczi and Wisniewski say they look forward to the premiere and look forward to people learning more about the river on which many communities call home.

“I think what I look forward to is after the documentary, listening to people as they leave a venue and talking between themselves and saying something like, wow I didn't know that about the river, and just to come away with more knowledge and a greater appreciation and having a good time,” Giczi said.

“You want people to come away with a better understanding of the area they live in, the love for the area they live in, and appreciation of the natural resources,” Wisniewski said. “I think educating people about the natural resources and its importance in history and in nature just helps people to understand it better, and because they understand it, they take care of it, and that's my hope.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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