2021 F3T Behind the Lens: Mighty Waters

Mighty Waters, produced by Cold Collaborative, is an emotive, inspiring film focusing on Ansil Saunders, a man who has made a permanent impact on everything from bonefishing and boat building, to the civil rights and independence movement in the Bahamas in the 1960s and 1970s. Ansil’s story is one that needs to be seen and heard, especially by today’s audiences. He’s spent decades educating himself while guiding prominent figures of his time including famous foreign dignitaries and Ernest Hemingway, but by far the individual who had the most impact on Ansil’s worldview was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King sought out Ansil’s counsel and company when he needed to find solitude and peace on the island while leading the Civil Rights Movement in the states. However, this isn’t a film about MLK, but rather how Ansil took Dr. King’s example and fought for civil rights and independence in his own country. 

We had the chance to sit down with the director of the film, Shannon Vandivier, to learn more about the film, Ansil himself, and the impacts he hopes his film will have on audiences.

FL: How did you first learn about Ansil’s story?

Shannon: Heather Harkavy. For over a year, she worked for me acting as a producer for Cold Collaborative and as director of operations for Fish for Change. That’s how I learned about Ansil’s story. We were in the studio one day, and she started telling a story about this gentleman who was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was with Dr. King four days before he was to be assassinated, and how Ansil essentially single-handedly started the civil rights movement on the island of Bimini.

He was incredibly prominent in his community and well-respected and just a giant slayer. It’s my favorite bit of terminology, my favorite metaphor for Ansil. He’s a giant slayer

I think I stopped her in the middle of our conversation and I was like, “Wait, can you put me on the phone with this guy. This guy has a story to tell and this is what would make a good film.” 

I remember, she was just like, “Oh yeah, Ansil? Uncle Ansil?” 

Sure enough, maybe a week later, she got ahold of Ansil and asked his permission to tell his story. 

I think he responded with, “Yeah, sure. Can you be here tomorrow?”

FL: What was the timeline like between the conception of the film and actual production?

Shannon: when the idea was first conceived, we were really jammed up with projects, and I didn’t just want to take this idea and half-ass it. I wanted to make sure that I gave it the time that it needed. 

In time, I was able to really scope out the story, do the research, confirm the claims that Ansil was making were actually true (which they very much were) and start going down the process of writing a script. In this case, from the time of learning about it to the time that we went out there and shot, I would say really you’re looking at a year timeframe. I spent a lot of time just researching the civil rights movement as a whole and reading through all of Martin Luther King’s speeches and researching Ansil. Doing all that, I was able to construct a script, and we took that script to Bimini.

Mighty Waters Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier

FL: Deep in the mangroves of Bimini, there’s a spot known as “the Healing Hole”, where Ansil took Dr. King and where a bust to MLK stands today. What was it like visiting the Healing Hole for the first time with Ansil?

What a question. The Healing Hole is this really interesting spot. Because the only things that have ever been put out there on Ansil are all pertaining to the Healing Hole and his psalm. So, when I went out there, I wanted the moment to be extraordinary, and I purposefully waited probably till the second-to-last day of our shoot to actually go out there. I wanted to learn and appreciate as much about Ansil as I could before that moment. I didn’t want it to be hindered by cameras and interruptions. I wanted it to be its own spiritual experience. Which is what we captured in the film. 

Visiting the Healing Hole is transformational in the way you think about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and how important he is. One of the goals I have with this film is to show Dr. King’s human side, the one that isn’t on a podium and giving very powerful and moving speeches. Here’s this person that laughs and loves, gets angry, and has faults and struggles.

Being out there, you can kind of just put yourself in the two men’s shoes. To me, the Healing Hole was this place that really I could get immersed within, where you can feel the energy of the place and Ansil’s passion.

MLK Bust Healing Hole Bimini
Photo from US Embassy – Bahamas

Ansil’s passion is best comprehended in the words of a famous psalm he wrote and shared with Dr. King. Ansil’s psalm, which you will hear in the film, that he shared with Martin Luther King, impacted MLK so much. After hearing Ansil’s words, Dr. King gave him a commission: 

He said, “Everybody needs to hear this at least once.” 

While I was out there, listening to Ansil recite his own words, I was moved. It brought me emotionally to tears, it brought me emotionally to a place of appreciation and contemplation. It’s radically transformed my perspective on the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, as well as a deeper understanding of who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was. I feel like through Ansil, I got to see this person in a different way than I’d ever before been able to appreciate.

Mighty Waters Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier
Photo by Matt Jones

FL: Describe Ansil’s spirit. What has been his impact and legacy on Bimini?

Shannon: Well, first off, there’s not a person on the island that doesn’t know who he is. I think it starts with the idea that Saunders’ name goes back a long time. He was friends Ernest Hemingway and many other influential people.

Simply put, Ansil is a pioneer. I think he took personal offense that the blacks were second class in Bimini. Because to him, that meant his community, his friends, his family were somehow inferior, which is total crap. He wouldn’t stand for that. His spirit is too courageous. He illuminates the room.

You know that when you’re with him, you can do no wrong, in a way. He is the kindest, most accepting person I’ve ever been around. He’s incredibly intelligent for someone that didn’t go to college or high school. I think that is a really unique part about him and who he is and what he embodies.

It started with being born into a family that was respected and then living a life of action. Not one bit of his life has been about serving himself. It’s been about seeing injustice and seeing downfalls in his own community and wanting to do everything he could to make it right. When he was in his twenties he sat in protest, mostly by himself in the Bimini Big Game Club, which at the time was a “Whites Only” establishment. He tried to get other people in his community to help him, but they told him he was wasting his time.

Mighty Waters Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier
Photo By: Matt Jones

He said, “I am going to go there every single day for lunch. I’m going to sit down and ask to be served.” 

And, for 41 days straight he wasn’t, yet, he persevered, and on that forty-second day, they served him lunch, and they’ve been serving the black community on Bimini ever since. 

He saw the movements in the United States that Martin Luther King and others were leading, and that gave him the courage, it gave him the inspiration he needed.

When everyone said, “You can’t and you shouldn’t,” he said, “I’m going to and I will.”

I think that that embodies every bit about who he is and what he stands for in those actions. He carried that through his life and it didn’t stop there. That event was just the spark, giving him the courage and the validation he knew he had within him. That’s what propelled him into the next phases of his life, which involved being the president of the PLP, the Progressive Liberal Party, and the right-hand man to Sir Lynden Pindling, the prime minister of Bahamas, writing his speeches and introducing him when he addressed the nation, and beyond.

Mighty Waters Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier
Photo by: Matt Jones

FL: It’s very clear that Ansil values education and saw it as the way to lift up his people. But without traditional schooling, how did he educate himself?

Shannon: Fly fishing became his education because the people he had on the boat with him were educated people. They were doctors, lawyers, people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, a former president of the NFL, the list goes on and on and on. 

One day, he was given this advice by a client, “Read the Miami Herald every single day for four years, you will get a college education.” 

And that’s what Ansil did.

Mighty Waters Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier
Photo by Matt Jones

“I read the Miami Herald every single day for four years,” Ansil said, “it was a college education. I learned everything I needed to know to carry the conversations and ask the right questions to the people that were on the boat with me.”

That propelled his education, into this place where he could carry intellectual conversations and he could see the problems and the injustice in Bimini and the Bahamas as a whole. That is what gave him the courage of a lion. I look at Ansil and I think of Aslan in the Narnia. I see him as the lion who can lay with the lamb because he’s as gentle as a lamb. Yet, he has the courage and the tenacity of a lion, to attack injustice and take it down. That’s Ansil. That’s his spirit.

Mighty Waters Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier
Photo by: Matt Jones

FL: There are a lot of parallels to the important conversations about equity and equality that have been going on in the country in recent years. What piece of Ansil’s story do you hope gets conveyed for audiences to take into their communities?

Shannon: If you had to draw a parallel similarity between Martin Luther King and Ansil, it would be that of courage. 

He didn’t see all of these opportunities to get educated as a way to better himself in a financial way, because that would involve a life where he spent his time serving himself. Ansil saw time as the most important resource that he had control of. In his case, something as little as 42 days had a very important and lasting impact. That happened before he met Martin Luther King and you better believe every single bit of Martin Luther King’s desire to want to be in the boat with Ansil had to do with hearing that story from Senator Clayton Powell and saying, “That guy sounds interesting. I’d like to be in the boat with him.”

I’d say that having the courage to stand up for what you believe in and being willing to invest the time into that. It’s easy to get caught up, spending all of our time chasing money. Why? So that we can take our money and reprioritize our time? 

In the end, a guy like Ansil is a model who represents someone who just skipped the middleman, prioritizing his time to serve others.

Mighty Waters Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier
Photo By: Matt Jones

FL: I noticed during the interview segments you tighten the frame, focusing on Ansil’s face and hands, cropping out other features in the process. What inspired that?

Shannon: That’s an important part of telling someone’s story, is being intimate. Really understanding somebody requires intimacy, you know? It’s something that only happens when you truly befriend somebody when you genuinely understand them, and you truly are able to empathize with their perspective. 

That was a creative decision in how I directed, the way the film was shot, and how I operated the camera when I was filming. I just wanted to be close and I just wanted to be as tight as I possibly could, because there is so much character there. There’s so much to be said in his face. He has obviously spent a whole life smiling more than he’s been frowning.

Mighty Waters Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier
Photo By: Matt Jones

FL: Who were your partners in the film?

Shannon: This film would not have been possible without the support of Rex Messing from Simms, Joe Gugino with Costa del Mar, and Woods King IV, and Sarah Foster from the American Museum of Fly Fishing. They all were all in, “Whatever you need, we’ll get you taken care of.” I think I only had to make three phone calls in a matter of two or three days, and the film was funded. It’s fantastic when you have sponsors that get it.

Photography by Matt Jones and Shannon Vandivier.

Check out all of our interviews with the filmmakers behind the 2021 Fly Fishing Film Tour!

“Take Me Somewhere Tranquil” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy in the Bahamas

2021 F3T Behind the Lens: River Tigers

2021 F3T Behind the Lens: Dropped in the Pacific

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