On the opening night of the five-day Freep Film Festival Wednesday night, 800 moviegoers flocked to the historic Redford Theatre in Detroit for a trip down memory lane.
Director Aaron Schillinger said the sold-out world premiere of “Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale” would touch the hearts of Detroiters. And he was right.
Julie Owens went to Boblo Island as a kid with her family and loved everything about it. She said she would always get excited when she saw the boat approaching, and she fondly remembers dancing on the deck to the deejay’s music on the ride back home.
“There was no way I was not coming to see this documentary,” Owens said. “It just warms my heart because (my grandparents) are no longer with us so this keeps us connected.”
The documentary tells the story of groups of preservationists on a mission to restore two very large steamboats, SS Columbia and Ste. Claire, that took passengers from Detroit to Boblo Island, a beloved and now shut-down Canadian amusement park, from its opening in 1898 until it closed in 1993.
“Nostalgia is really at the heart of the film, and then peeling back the layers of that nostalgia to see what other stories are behind it,” Schillinger said. “If you built a new boat instead, you wouldn’t step on it and feel all the history of it.”
The film is about so much more than just the act of rebuilding abandoned boats, Schillinger said: It’s about perseverance through obstacles, it’s about Detroit and it’s about people.
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Boblo Island and its boats weren’t all fun memories, though, and were once filled with segregation and racism — Schillinger previously directed a short documentary about Sarah Elizabeth Ray, who was kicked off one of the steamboats in 1945 because she was Black. She took her case to the Supreme Court and won.
“I feel like that’s part of the nostalgia because, when you have all these people and the happy memories, there’s a whitewashing effect and so people kind of gloss over those other elements. … It was kind of like walking a tightrope: how can we have all the happy memories while also celebrating figures like Sarah Elizabeth Ray.”
The screening is the first of more than 35 in-person and virtual events taking place from Wednesday to Sunday in the festival’s eighth year.
Inside the premiere, eventgoers ready to relive their childhoods waited patiently.
Michigan native Keith Mixter and his wife, Carol, who fondly remember their hundreds of trips to Boblo Island as kids with their families and on school field trips, came to the premiere as a date night.
“(The boats) were a lot of fun,” Mixter said. “We were kids at the time, so just the crowds sitting out on the old folding chairs, going down below and watching the engines … they didn’t care if you got off. You could just ride up and down the river all day long.”
To ensure the events are COVID-19 safe, capacity at large theaters is reduced, proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test is required, and masking is required at indoor events.
The Freep Film Festival is in partnership with Detroit Black Film Festival, Dlectricity and Hell’s Half Mile Music and Film Festival in Bay City. All three events are happening this weekend.
You can still buy tickets to screenings at freepfilmfestival.com. Tickets to in-person screenings are $12; tickets to virtual screenings are $10.
Contact Emma Stein: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @_emmastein.