University City resident Henry Biggs remembers hearing “a lot of talk” about bridging St. Louis’ racial divides and disparities in the months that followed Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson four years ago.
“But I didn’t really see many people saying, ‘OK, well, what’s the thing that I could do?’” Biggs recalled this week on St. Louis on the Air.
For Biggs – a longtime St. Louisan, scholar and athlete – that one thing ended up involving a whole lot of swimming. He decided to swim the entire 28 miles of water surrounding Manhattan in New York City, and he asked people to pledge a dollar per mile to support “things that would make the Ferguson area better.”
“It attracted a good amount of attention,” Biggs told host Don Marsh. “We were glad to raise $120,000 for the cause. As a citizen of St. Louis, it was important to me.”
The funds went to three organizations working on some of the many issues raised in the wake of Brown’s death: Big Brothers Big Sisters, the CHADS Coalition for Mental Health and St. Louis Community College.
Meanwhile, the filming of a new documentary began under the direction of Derek Elz. Highlighting Biggs’ efforts and accomplishments as well as the events and aftermath of the Ferguson unrest, “Swimming to Ferguson” opens Friday at the Tivoli Theatre.
The feature-length film includes appearances by Michael Brown Sr., the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Ron Johnson and Rev. Starsky Wilson, among other regional figures, and it’s narrated by Joe Buck.
Elz and Biggs worked on several projects together prior to Biggs’ decision to take on the Manhattan swim. They decided to make a short film about the adventure, and then it slowly grew into something bigger.
“Midway through [Biggs] said, ‘You know what, there’s this other swim that completes this triple crown of open-water swimming,’ which is a very rare and grueling thing to accomplish,” Elz explained.
Biggs, who had already completed the English Channel, then took on the Catalina Channel, a 20-mile stretch of water between Catalina Island and the mainland of Southern California. In addition to the challenge of the distance itself, that swim had to take place at night.
All three swims occurred in cold, open-water settings.
“Maybe it’s a certain masochism – the thing that I find the least pleasant is sort of the fear that I want to conquer … for some reason all of these swims have to be in cold water,” Biggs said about his motivations. “And it’s one thing to have to swim for 20 miles – swim for 10, 15 hours – but honestly having to swim in cold water is just so unpleasant.”
While the athletic feats are a big focus of the film, both the director and its main subject emphasized that what they see as the main takeaway of “Swimming to Ferguson” is much larger.
“I think it is really just about what can any of us do,” Elz said. “There’s bad things in the world. What can you do to mitigate those, what can you do to step in and not just be an observer of the troubles in society and get moving and try to help?
“We try to fairly lay out some of the issues that were brought up by these experts [including] three or four people on the Ferguson Commission – and tried to be honest and as fair as we could be, to be respectful to the police side, to be respectable to the African-American community side, to try to just let it unfold.”
Listen to the full conversation, which also touched on the documentary process and the unique challenges of filming on the water – and at night:
What: Screenings of “Swimming to Ferguson”
When: September 14-20, 2018 (various showtimes)
Where: Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63130)
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill, Caitlin Lally and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.