Starring real-life Mainers, “Picnic and a Little Mutiny” is about a sailing lesson Penobscot Bay. Photos courtesy of Iamorata Films

In director Jacek Laskus’ new short film, “Picnic and a Little Mutiny,” four normally landlocked Mainers sign on for an instructional sailing trip in Penobscot Bay. Helmed by the requisite crusty Maine sea captain, the quartet run through nautical drills, learning the winches, lines, and even a potentially dangerous overboard rescue, all while the four strangers bond over their shared experience, both on and off the water.

There are a couple of twists in Laskus’ seemingly straightforward black-and-white depiction of a fun but hardly groundbreaking bit of Maine summer adventure. The final one is hinted at in the title, so I’ll let readers figure that out on their own. The more important and compelling twist is that the four main characters are all people with visual impairment, non-professional actors who signed on to a film project where two total strangers, director and writer Laskus and executive producer Harriet Hubbard, would film them not only sailing far from their comfort zones, but also speaking intimately about their experiences living with blindness.

“What could go wrong with four visually impaired people on a boat?” jokes Hubbard, who’s lived all over her adopted state of Maine since 1985. Now residing in Portland, Hubbard explains that “Picnic and a Little Mutiny” grew out of creative and life partner Laskus’ acquaintance with the man who’d become the film’s sea captain, real-life Maine sea captain Albert Kolodji.

“My son went to a camp on Whitehead Island, where you had to be ferried there by lobster boat,” explained Hubbard. “Albert was the captain, and the impetus. He’d ferried blind people out there, and even on the Monhegan Island race, and he and Jacek got to talking. Albert’s got this craggy sort of face and, as he talked, Jacek thought, ‘There’s a movie in here somewhere.’ ”

“Picnic and a Little Mutiny” director Jacek Laskus on set.

For Laskus, leaping into a high-seas cinematic project was right up his alley, as the longtime Hollywood and independent cinematographer (I was wowed to find that Laskus was the cinematographer for Robert Altman’s stellar 1988 adaptation of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial”) set about assembling a team – including Hubbard.

“I’d gone to Maine Media Workshops and learned the soup-to-nuts of film and TV production, and then gone to study screenwriting at UCLA before discovering that I was a little past the sell-by date as far as the industry goes. Ageism is real. So I started producing,” said Hubbard (who noted that her documentary about revolutionary architect R.M. Schindler, “Schindler Space Architect,” is in post-production).


But while the two experienced film pros quickly put together an impressive crew of behind-the-scenes talent (largely from the ranks of the Maine film industry), the four crucial main roles presented a true challenge. “We sent out a casting call through (blindness advocacy organization) The Iris Network, and eventually met with a dozen people. Albert, Jacek and I sat down with each of them and talked about our plan for the film, and the necessity of some 12-hour days on a boat, doing take after take. Also, we needed the actors to be willing to speak honestly about their lives and what life is like without sight, and for them to be physically capable of what we’d need from them. Plus, we were looking for a certain presence and energy.”

From that intensive casting process, eventually Mainers Sam Atwood, Ray Hepper, Sara Nappi and Mayi Sapien were signed on, and “Picnic and a Little Mutiny” started shooting on the choppy Maine water last summer. For executive producer Hubbard, the experience was uniquely rewarding and challenging – even if she wasn’t allowed on the main boat. “

“There were four sailors, the captain, the first mate, and our crew – no room for Harriet on the boat,” she said, laughing. Still, she and Laskus got to know their cast very well leading up to the shoot, sharing a rented house with the four actors during production.

“We had breakfast, lunch and dinner together,” said Hubbard. “As they did take after take together, a real camaraderie came out. These are four very different people, and they were able to establish a rapport that was not forced, not wooden. We didn’t have a storyline locked. We just asked them to be honest about what their life is like. What I was struck by is how much they have to navigate in this world with their other senses. They hear everything. They touch and adapt where we wouldn’t think twice.”

“Picnic and a Little Mutiny” combines the documentary-style chronicle of its characters’ singular nautical adventure with an unexpectedly poetic ending where all their talk of life and dreams sees the four main characters making a startling (and appropriately cinematic) choice. For industry pro Laskus, that’s garnered praise from impressive Hollywood peers such as director Peter Medak (“The Ruling Class”) and screenwriter and director Michael Tolkin (“The Player”), who calls Laskus’ moody and contemplative short “like emotional Antonioni.” But for executive producer Hubbard, “Picnic and a Little Mutiny” is just as much about her love of her chosen home.

“The film isn’t just about the cast and their experiences, it’s a love story to the state of Maine,” said Hubbard. “I love Maine with all my heart, and the film does a beautiful job in highlighting the incredible coast of Maine. I’m also proud that so much of the crew is from Maine – they found out what we were doing and stepped up and did more than they needed to.”

Following on that theme, “Picnic and a Little Mutiny” recently premiered at the Maine Outdoor Film Festival, where several of the cast members fielded questions from an appreciative crowd. (“They just don’t,” is Hubbard’s answer to one question about the cast’s conspicuous lack of life vests.) As the film makes the festival rounds (with a hopeful eye toward September’s Camden International Film Festival), Hubbard is excited for more people to experience this unlikely slice of Maine outdoor adventure.

“I suppose the irony is that it’s so beautiful out there, and they can’t see it,” Hubbard said of the film’s intrepid cast. “But the film is about seeing them experience Maine translated through different channels.”

As part of the film’s ongoing Maine journey, Portland’s Space will hold an encore free screening of the film on Friday, Aug. 18, with descriptive audio for people experiencing blindness or visual impairment.

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