Every story has a back story, and Kim Smith's back story began in her backyard.

In the mid 1990s, Smith — an award-winning landscape designer — filled her Gloucester garden with native and pollinator plantings that attract all manner of winged creatures. These, thanks to lots of milkweed, included lots of magnificent monarch butterflies. "I just loved them," says Smith, "and being a greedy person, I wanted more and more of them." 

There began a tale that this year saw Smith complete a 10-year project, the making of the 56-minute documentary "Beauty on the Wing — Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly." In a few short months, and despite the pandemic canceling its local premiere, the film has seen its way to six film festivals, all virtual, the latest of which — the Boston International Kids Film Festival — runs Nov. 20 to 22. 

American Public TV Worldwide —the world's largest distributor of educational television has just signed the documentary for global distribution.

Armed with a handheld digital camera, an artist's eye, and a love of her subject, Smith has captured the life, work and world of what she calls “this charismatic little creature,” beginning with its metamorphosis from a tiny egg, to its amazing annual journey from the summer shores of its Gloucester habitats to its winter habitats in the Mexican mountains and forests of Michoacán, where the monarchs annual arrival has long been regarded as something of a miracle: the returning of the souls of the dead descending from the sky in fluttering orange clouds, to roost by the millions in the trees.

When she began the project in 2006, Smith knew nothing about filmmaking. Photographing the monarchs, first as "a record," she was urged on by family and friends. One of them, Gloucester's late historian Joe Garland, was particularly encouraging. "Oh, I thought, I have to learn to make a film," she recalls, of her early days learning the basics with Andrew Love and Lisa Smith at Cape Ann TV (now Studio 1623). 

Investing in a hand-held HD Canon video camera, Smith began shooting digital. "It was small and so easy to use that I could crouch down, or lie down to capture extreme close-ups," she says. Supported by community fundraising that covered the $35,000 production budget, she shot "tons of footage over the years," wrote and recorded the narrative script, and saved on post production costs by teaching herself to digitally edit her film.. 

Her goal, she says, was not just to celebrate the monarch, but to educate viewers about the plight of this creature that is loved around the world. Indigenous to North America, these light, bright orange butterflies have through the centuries been blown by wind and weather to other continents, including England, where, in the late 17th century, they were named in honor of King William III of England, also known as the Prince of Orange.

In the last 20 years, however, the butterflies' numbers have plummeted worldwide from a billion to 30 million, as the excessive use of herbicides has killed off much of their main food source —milkweed— while climate change has confused their flight patterns. And in Mexico, the logging of trees has sabotaged the delicate ecosystem of their annual return.

Smith's film joins a growing body of environmental activism on behalf of the monarch butterfly. Gardeners across the nation have, like Smith, filled flower beds with milkweed to feed their numbers. The Obama administration, concerned by its alarming decline, allocated $3.2 million to protect it.

In making her documentary, Smith traveled to Mexico twice to film, and learned firsthand just how endangered the monarchs have become. Over time, she says, she came to see monarchs as "little gateway creatures that can open the way to for people to learn about other endangered creatures." 

At Good Harbor Beach, a favorite early morning photographic haunt, Smith began to turn her camera to another local endangered species, piping plovers. Like the monarchs, the little shore birds rely on a fragile ecosystem that Smith began to take an active role in protecting, while filming them. With her monarch documentary now in worldwide release, the piping plovers are  on their way to star billing in a new documentary, now in production.

Meanwhile, the Boston International Kids Film Festival, a program of Filmmakers Collaborative, will screen Smith's documentary as "one of best that the world of independent filmmaking has to offer." Shown for one week to schoolchildren across the city, the festival, which describes her documentary as  "illuminating how two regions, separated by thousands of miles, are ecologically interconnected," will then host a Zoom author event in which the students can engage in a Q&A which Smith herself.

Smith, by the way, doesn't just train her talents on winged creatures. In yet another ongoing film project, she captures the aerial antics of Gloucester's falling Greasy Pole walkers. That documentary, which celebrates the spirit of the city's annual St Peters Fiesta, is well underway.  

ABOUT KIM SMITH AND HER FILM

Gloucester resident Kim Smith is a documentary filmmaker, environmental conservationist, photojournalist, author, illustrator and  award-winning landscape designer.

Her documentary "Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly" was released in February. It has been chosen as an official selection at New Haven Documentary, Nature Without Borders International, Flickers’ Rhode Island International , Docs Without Borders , WRPN Women’s International, and Conservation Wildlife film festivals.

It next shows at the Boston International Kids Film Festival (https://bikff.org/schedule/) on Nov. 20 to 22; tickets start at $20. Links to view the film will be provided upon ticket purchase.

More information about the film is available by visiting https://monarchbutterflyfilm.com/  or email Smith at kimsmithdesigns@hotmail.com.

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