Jenny Levison is a life-long swimmer who specializes in the use of creative arts media in social justice activism. Josh Waletzky has directed and edited many important social issue documentary films –– from HARLAN COUNTRY, USA to SHAKER HEIGHTS: STRUGGLE FOR INTEGRATION. Our entrée to the film was through Jenny’s oldest friend –– a parent coach of a diverse swim team in Boston.
From the first kick off the wall, we saw the possibility of a meaningful exploration of the troubled waters of race and fear. Fears of water run deep. Ask African-Americans about swimming, and you’re likely to hear personal stories about drowning. In fact, the statistic is staggering: black youth drown at three times the rate of white youth. Could the legacies of slavery, private country clubs, and our longstanding fears of interracial physical closeness still be at play?
Parting the Waters is about people overcoming these fears, inequities, and separations. African Americans and Latinos have been systematically excluded from so many arenas of society that it would be easy for aspiring swimmers to give up or think conventionally: baseball, basketball, football. But instead, our characters struggle to make bold choices. Fortunately, swimming provides its own antidote to the pressures that come with being different; as one of our characters says, “I love to go to the pool and just swim. It takes all my stress away. I wish I had gills so I wouldn’t have to breathe.”
Parting the Waters goes beyond breakthrough moments and asks whether history-changing statistics can actually change history. Will Maritza Correia (first black female on a U.S. Olympic swim team) and Cullen Jones (African-American world record holder) part the waters for a new generation of black and Latino swimmers? We watch Maritza and Cullen influence young swimmers from inner-city Boston, whose age range (9-17) gives us a collective story-line. Julimar Avila reminds us of a young Maritza, with a bedroom full of swimming medals, and Elgernon Jesionek reminds Cullen of the kids he knew as a teenager, who were “in and out of trouble, in and out of the pool.”
Water is a friend to the camera. Each time a swimmer dives into water, we witness a transformation –– a land animal becomes a creature of the water. The world underwater is private and silent –– no matter how many people cheer from the bleachers above. The swimming pool is also a colorful social world of kids in swimsuits and goggles, of splashing and horseplay. It’s a performance that is completely exposed to the camera; the resistance of the water creates a natural slow-motion, a balance of exertion and fluidity. Parting the Waters weaves these elements together into a graceful and exhilarating whole – from the neighborhood pool to the Olympic pool, from Boston to Beijing.