Nfld. & Labrador

Red-hot Witless Bay drama attracts NYC filmmakers

A battle between Witless Bay’s Puffin Patrol and a family developing land in the area intrigued two documentarians from New York City.

Controversy between one family and environmentalists in Witless Bay documented

Filmmakers Philip Robibero and Beryl Shereshewsky travelled from New York City to Witless Bay last August to make a documentary about the community, released this week. (Twitter @greatbigstory)

Trouble has been brewing in Witless Bay over property being built across from an ecological reserve for puffins for over a year, and now it's the subject of a documentary. 

Along with its scenery on the coast of Newfoundland, roughly 30 kilometres south of St. John's, the town has a Puffin Patrol, a service  Juergen and Elfie Schau created to rescue lost pufflings – baby puffins – and return them to the reserve. 

And as filmmaker Beryl Shereshewsky puts it, "There's way more to this story than just saving the puffins."

It might seem like it's a small town story, but in reality what's happening there is being echoed everywhere in the world.- Beryl Shereshewsky

The conflict unfolding between concerned residents of Witless Bay and a family building a structure in the area — combined with the adventures of the Puffin Patrol — attracted Shereshewsky and fellow filmmaker Philip Robibero to travel from New York City to make a documentary about it last August. 

The Flock was released this week, created for Great Big Story, part of CNN-owned Global Media Company.

Puffins are part of a new documentary shot in Witless Bay. (Scott Leslie)

Battle of Witless Bay

Shereshewsky and Robibero discovered the story of the town's controversy on Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia members of the public can contribute to. 

"I was reading about the town of Witless Bay and there was a part where there was like, some kind of controversy bar in the page. And it was saying that the town council had recently hired a lawyer to ... intimidate the town, because there's some crazy things going on on social media. So we kind of dove into that," said Robibero.

People were pretty open to talking to us, and were really honest on camera.- Beryl Shereshewsky

Lorna Yard runs a local news publication in Witless Bay, and is vehemently opposed to the construction of a small house in a location called Ragged Beach, which is across the water from the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, an island chock-full of puffins.

Yard, and other concerned citizens, believe that it is environmentally unsafe for development to take place so close to the reserve. 

The Churchill family, who own the property near Ragged Beach, have told CBC News they feel attacked by Yard and see no issue with their little house. 

And the filmmakers believe that battle presents themes of climate change that are indicative of a global issue.

"It might seem like it's a small town story, but in reality what's happening there is being echoed everywhere in the world. You know, human development, where people are living closer to the coast, interactions with animals. How do you create that balance? How do we make sure that everybody is happy?" Shereshewsky said.

Word travels fast

The filmmakers said when they arrived in Witless Bay for a week in August 2018, getting puffins on film was a challenge – and they only saw four between their timing and the fog.

The puffin patrol releasing a wild puffin that had wandered into a developed area. (CBC)

"We were a little unlucky in that most of the puffins had been caught by then," Robibero told the St. John's Morning Show.

However, they were lucky when it came to people to interview for their documentary. 

"Gossip gets around pretty quickly in small towns like Witless Bay. So yeah, it almost seemed like everyone knew who we were within like two days," said Robibero

"People were pretty open to talking to us and were really honest on camera," added Shereshewsky.

Keeping it impartial was key 

In a documentary that centres around a heated debate between two sides, the filmmakers said remaining impartial was tough. 

"We're there to document something that's happening. We're not there to pick a side," said Shereshewsky.

The reaction from viewers has been split, and Shereshewsky takes that as a good sign.

"There have been people that have fallen on both sides, where some people have left the film really kind of believing in Lorna's cause. Then other people have left the film really believing in Anne Marie [Churchill]. For me, that was actually really validating… We don't want our opinions to come through in this edit," she explained.

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from St. John's Morning Show