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Judy Foreman: Jonny Zwick Produces a Chilling Documentary to Protect Whales from Iceland

First-time filmmaker and his Breach earn entry into 30th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Jonny Zwick grew up in Montecito but now finds himself  in Iceland on a mission to save the whales — specifically the fin whale. “How is it that the second largest animal on the planet, the endangered fin whale — 89½ feet long, 75 tons, and can live up to 140 years — was being hunted for commercial gain and illegally exported across the world, from Iceland to Japan and used for human consumption?” he asks. Click to view larger
Jonny Zwick grew up in Montecito but now finds himself in Iceland on a mission to save the whales — specifically the fin whale. “How is it that the second largest animal on the planet, the endangered fin whale — 89½ feet long, 75 tons, and can live up to 140 years — was being hunted for commercial gain and illegally exported across the world, from Iceland to Japan and used for human consumption?” he asks. (www.breachthefilm.com photo)

[Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.]

Following the exploits of Santa Barbara kids who are making their marks in the world as adults has always been an interest of mine.

One of the hottest of homegrown talents is 26-year-old Jonny Zwick, a photographer and first-time filmmaker whose documentary, Breach, will be screened later this month as part of the 30th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The son of Betsy Zwick and her late husband, Barry, “JZ” attended Montecito Union, Crane Country Day and Santa Barbara High schools. I’ve known him since he was crawling around on the floor of his parents’ old house on East Valley Road.

Given a camera by his dad, Zwick immediately demonstrated a natural talent for photography. After high school, he attended the University of Colorado Boulder, where he majored in journalism with an emphasis in technology, arts and media.

Although he made films in college, including a short film on civil unrest in Nepal, Zwick also worked in television production as a producer for the Discovery Channel reality show, Naked and Afraid.

Breach marks his first solo effort, and he serves as the director and photographer while producing the entire film.

The 46-minute documentary, which took a year and a half to complete, will be screened twice during the two-week film festival that opens Jan. 27.

The title comes from a behavior that certain species of whales exhibit in which they break — or breach — the surface of the ocean. Zwick chose the name as an expression of the whales’ freedom, which is ironic because the government of Iceland, where the film is set, basically has been “breaching” an international moratorium on whaling.

Zwick was one of hundreds of applicants who sought to be included in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s documentary category, and submitted his application right at the deadline.

“I am very honored and excited to have been selected and granted the opportunity to see one of my films in a theater I have grown up attending,” he told me. “The SBIFF has always been a goal of mine, and being able to premiere the film in my hometown will enable all my friends and family to be in attendance.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to show my work.”

Zwick said he became intrigued with whaling in Iceland after listening to stories told by his uncle, his mom’s brother, Hardy Jones, an award-winning marine mammal filmmaker.

According to Jones, the tiny island nation in the North Atlantic is one of three countries that continues to permit commercial whaling in defiance of a moratorium established by the International Whaling Commission. To Zwick, it was a story of exploitation and needed to be told.

It also was a leap of faith.

“I quit my day job, moved out of my Venice, California, apartment, and told my girlfriend to hang in,” he recalled.

Zwick threw himself into the project, which he funded through a successful campaign on Kickstarter.

“How is it that the second largest animal on the planet, the endangered fin whale — 89½ feet long, 75 tons, and can live up to 140 years — was being hunted for commercial gain and illegally exported across the world, from Iceland to Japan and used for human consumption?” he asked, incredulously.

Minke whale products are sold domestically in Iceland while fin whale products are exported to Japan. The CEO of one company that uses the whale blubber to fuel its whaling vessels calls it an “eco-friendly bio fuel,” but it’s also been incorporated into a whale beer and recently has been used as livestock feed.

Iceland, whose fishing industry is the country’s second largest economic driver after tourism, last summer set a quota to kill 184 of the massive fin whales — even though meat from the 2009-2010 hunting season remains in local freezing facilities.

“The most shocking aspect was that it was not being hidden,” Zwick said. “It was not being done in the shadows, such as we’ve seen with controversial hunts like the Japanese dolphin hunts in the infamous coves of Taiji.”

The hunts themselves take place far out at sea, but in 2013, if you were one of the 175,000 tourists who took a 45-minute drive to Hvalfjörður (whale fjord in Icelandic) from the capital city of Reykjavík, you might have seen the massive marine mammals dragged up a slab of concrete and chopped to bits. Even on whale-watching trips, there is the chance that you’ll pass the boats pulling dead whales back to shore.

As a documentary director, Zwick said his mission was “to tell the world about the dichotomy of visitors going to appreciate the whales in their incredibly beautiful setting, and whale hunters killing those same whales in the same region.”

He says he put himself in uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous situations while covering the story. He went on a minke-whale hunt, interviewed whalers in their own homes, and followed truck drivers transporting whale meat to isolated locations in the middle of the night.

Breach is edited by Ken Duke, with narration by Billy Baldwin. Zwick has signed a shopping agreement (film speak) with two production companies, August Road Entertainment and Viceroy Films, which are assisting him in finding distribution.

After Breach, Zwick says, future projects include a human rights film and a feature-length documentary on the life of a Liverpool Football Club fanatic. The latter is a story about men who work 60-hour weeks so they can afford to follow their favorite soccer team around the world.

“I sincerely hope the hometown crowd will attend these screenings, and also that this film will reach those companies that can take this film to the world,” he said. “It’s a story that needs to be told!”

This kid is definitely one to watch!

Screenings of Breach are scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., and 10:10 a.m. Jan. 31 at Metro Four Theatre, 618 State St.

— Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

(Jonny Zwick video)

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