The man who directed the new documentary The Messenger, Shawn Sterling Welling, is a self-described "self-absorbed, amateur film director" who happened to have a friend with movie-making equipment laying around. He literally stumbled upon The Messenger's story while biking on Bolivar Peninsula. Needing a bathroom break, Welling and his then girlfriend spotted a small bar.
"You remember the bar scene from Star Wars?" Welling asks Hair Balls on the phone. Sure, we remember. "Well, that's what it felt like the first time I walked into [Norbert's Bait and Bar]. Like everybody was from a different galaxy. A gentleman named Tommy walked up to me, hugged me and said, 'Welcome to Norbert's.' By then I was hooked. So we came down the next weekend with the grip truck and shot one of the guys. Then we came down every weekend and every Wednesday for the whole year.
Welling and his crew focused on four men. "There was Michael the fisherman, Tommy the conman, and Eugene who was run over by a lawnmower at age 10, so he's in a 1950s wheelchair. And Back Up Bert, who drives around Bolivar backwards in a truck because his front gears went out."
Never just the quaint, colorful characters they might seem to be, the men all come from rough backgrounds. "They've lived hard lives. They're not proud of it, but they're not ashamed of it either. Tommy will tell you he comes from a long line of conmen. Michael will tell you he comes from a long line of murderers and thieves. They're always drunk or high." Welling says, "They're like ZZ Top gone bad," he adds, laughing.
"They're bizarre, oddities, sure. We had them under a looking glass, watching them and thinking they were our little projects. We had all this fancy equipment and education and they were just like zoo creatures we were watching. Then all of the sudden we realized that wasn't really the case. We are their projects. They have a lot more insight on life than us. Michael is far more intelligent that my college career ever bought me. So we just shut up and listened."
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The stories the four men told Welling and his crew over the next 360 days included, near the end, a throw-down with Hurricane Ike. When the storm came in, a couple of the men are evacuated but Mike and Norbert are left behind. Mike, the fisherman, tried to head out to sea, trying to outrun the storm, but he was too late. The drawbridge wouldn't open and his mast was too tall to pass under it; he couldn't get out.
"Mike had just two things - his dog and his boat," Welling says evenly. "He lost one of them in the storm.
"They live in the marshes, at the very tip of Bolivar. This is not High Island," Welling says of the four. "Here we had these great footage of the place, on high-definition film. All these beautiful shots and then we have footage of the same places after the storm. It's amazing, the difference, what being submerged in 15, 20 feet of water will do to a place."
The Messenger: 360 Days of Bolivar makes its world premiere at 7 p.m. April 19 at the 42nd WorldFest Independent International Film Festival, 2949 Dunvale Road. For information, call 713-965-9955 or visit www.worldfest.org.