Like a trusty steamboat captain, Aaron Schillinger deftly navigates the tricky channel between silliness and shame in his documentary, Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale, making its theatrical debut Friday, Sept. 16, at select locations.
Having already done the round of festivals, Boblo Boats won the Hometown Talent Award in last year’s Freep Film Festival, and now everybody can see it. The film, Schillinger’s first, also starts a longer run at the Mariner Theater, in Marine City, accompanied throughout September by Boblo amusement park artifacts and props from the film.
Boblo Boats follows the travails of the SS Columbia and SS Ste. Claire. Operated by Bob-Lo Excursion Co. throughout the 20th century, this pair of passenger ferries served the park on Bois Blanc Island in the Detroit River until the end of operations in 1993. Forced into retirement, the oldest surviving vessels of their type in North America have since had mixed fates.
Schillinger’s tale centers on the efforts of Dr. Ron Kattoo, who purchased Ste. Claire on a whim and has endured hell and high water while trying to restore it. But the larger frame gives us the particulars through the interior monologues of Columbia, trenchantly voiced in first person by Martha Reeves. Yes, the ship is sentient and has much to say, often with backing from Myles Rodenhouse’s touching score.
Schillinger started simply enough. “I became fascinated with the story when a woman told me about her psychic connection with a ferry boat,” he says. The late Gloria Davis, the psychic and numerologist to whose memory the film is dedicated, said Columbia “does talk to me from time to time.”
Going from this point, Schillinger gathers a collection of Boblo fanatics who are reminiscent of the fictional characters in True Stories, David Byrne’s 1986 satirical survey of a strange Texas landscape. Kevin Mayer and Jeffrey Garrett are a married couple who devote themselves to recapturing their lost childhoods. Mayer worked at Boblo as a teenager and in adulthood created a scale-model replica of the park’s attractions inside his and Garrett’s suburban home. They even have “The Bug,” a Boblo ride, in the backyard, and Mayer runs it while Garrett—dressed in a Superman shirt—goes for a spin with one of their five pug dogs.
On its way downriver, Boblo Boats drifts against another story discovered by Schillinger. A 24-year-old Black woman, Sarah E. Ray, was thrown off the Columbia before a 1945 departure with white coworkers from the City of Detroit’s Ordinance Department. This disgrace was avenged after the NAACP pursued her civil-rights case. The United States Supreme Court eventually affirmed Ray’s claim, and the case inspired racial-justice gains to follow in the early 1950s.
One of the triumphs of Boblo Boats is how it depicts Ray’s struggles via Bec Sloane’s splendid stop-motion animation. Sloane’s lumpy characters jitter around in a most charming but incisive way. When the ferry officials return Ray’s fare at the ticket booth, she flings the coins into the water, and we share the disgust.
Schillinger then manages to summarize more recent developments, including the heartbreaking 2018 fire that destroyed Ste. Claire’s internal wooden structure. At the end of the turbulent 75 minutes, Boblo Boats brings us up-to-date on restoration efforts for both ferries while simultaneously summoning an unanticipated moral force.
Smudged by the past, we nevertheless feel a redemptive twinge in the final aerial shot as Dr. Kattoo hoists the flag over Claire’s mended hull.