ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — A local maritime disaster that consumed hundreds of millions of dollars and took two years to clean up is now the subject of a full-length documentary.
“Ship Happens” tells the story of the ill-fated Golden Ray, which capsized in September 2019 in St. Simons Sound, Ga. But it’s about more than a sunken ship.
The film premiered Thursday night at the Ritz theatre in Brunswick; the Nashville-based filmmakers wanted the first screening to be held in the community where it all happened.
“One of the first things we wanted to do was show it here,” says Josh Gilligan co-director, “just kind of get the handshake/OK from the people that were intimately involved.”
The film traces the two-year removal of the doomed ship through the eyes and voices of locals. Co-director Jordan Bellamy’s elevator pitch is a film about the “toxic relationship between a 656-foot capsized ship and the people of an idyllic, sleepy island town.”
It’s a relationship that ultimately ensnared the documentarians, when what they thought would be a two-month project got caught in the protracted timeline of the ship’s removal. The extra time suited the directors, allowing them to full embed in St. Simons Island – a community that returned the embrace.
“We’re not taking a forensic look at how this operation happened,” says Bellamy. “That's not our area. The central characters are the people in the St. Simons community, as they are in their relationship to the ship itself.”
The film explores the environmental fallout of the disaster, but also the quirky characters that populate the island, and the way residents alternately reviled and celebrated the blight on their horizon.
“The emotions on this project weren't always clear,” says Gilligan. “They were kind of homey and heartwarming, but also eerie. Like kids on the beach, but also this big ship rotting behind them.”
The directors call the ship a "Trojan horse” that provided access to the people of the community. Many of the film’s central characters – including “Captain Andy” Jones, former Altamaha Riverkeeper Susan Inman, and longtime Brunswick News reporter Larry Hobbs – attended the Thursday screening, something the filmmakers said was both a triumph and a little tense.
“That was kind of the pressure of carrying this over the finish line,” said Gilligan, “wanting to represent these people that became our friends, represent them well. And then to have them all in the room last night -- it was kind of like putting different animals in the same room and being like, ‘I hope they get along!’”
The filmmakers’ next steps include screening the documentary at film festivals and locking down a streaming deal, but the day after the premiere, their plans included the beach – a hard-won opportunity to enjoy St. Simons while the coast is clear.