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“Call Us Ishmael” examines fascination with Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” special screening at NKU

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

Film director David Shaerf hated the novel Moby-Dick.

“Growing up, I never had a favorite book, but I would always revel in telling people how my least favorite book is Moby-Dick. It’s so dull,” Shaerf states in a press release promoting the premier of his film, Call Us Ishmael.


“When I picked it up again as a 30-year-old I realized how wrong I was,” says Shaerf, who teaches English and cinema studies at Oakland University in Michigan.

Upon his later-in-life rereading of Herman Melville’s book, Shaerf realized the story was a remarkable one. Armed with a bit more life experience, his takeaway was, “this book gets me.”

This week, his documentary, the 75-minute film, Call Us Ishmael, will have a special screenings in NKU’s Griffin Hall Digitorium, Friday, April 13, at 10 a.m. The screening takes place just days before the film’s world premiere at Freep Film Festival in Detroit. It’s a fitting venue considering one of the most widely known Melville scholars is NKU’s Dr. Robert Wallace.

Wallace, in addition to being a prolific author about Melville and fine art, has taught a class on Moby-Dick for more than twenty years, and will teach the class in the Fall 2018 semester at NKU. Several of Wallace’s students are featured in the film as well.

Wallace and his students are among an impressive cast, which include artist, composer, and musician Laurie Anderson, who devised and toured a performance piece called, “Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick; Frank Stella, the American painter and printmaker who created a work of art for each of Moby-Dick’s 138 chapters, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2009; and Nathaniel Philbrick, who won the National Book Award in 2000 for his maritime history, In the Heart of the Sea.

Jamie Buckner, the film’s producer, is a Kentucky-born, Brooklyn-based filmmaker and producer who has been credited alongside such film greats as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

Call Us Ishmael is an intimate look at the world’s obsession with Melville’s Moby-Dick, considered by many as the great American novel. The film took more than seven years to complete. Throughout Shaerf’s journey into the world of the novel, he encounters artists, musicians, professors, and performers who are singularly devoted to Moby-Dick. The film gives insight into that community.

Buckner, originally from Louisville, and an NKU graduate, says in his producer’s statement that he’d never read Moby-Dick.

“I knew as much as the next person: Ahab, Ishmael, White Whale, the usual,” says Buckner. “Then, my good friend David comes back to NYC from Michigan one weekend and asks for my help. “Come help me shoot this thing at the Seaport. It’s a bunch of people reading this book out loud for 24 hours.””

That was Buckner’s first foray into the novel. As the reading went on, he became more fascinated, but mostly by everyone else’s fascination with the book, he says.

Shaerf told Buckner he needed a producer to help bring the film home, and Buckner eventually accepted. And then he read the novel.

“After three readings, I can honestly say that I enjoy it more each time,” says Buckner. “Something new reveals itself as the best part each time. I’ll laugh at a new place I’d never laughed before, I’ll cry at a place that didn’t even seem sad before. Sometimes I’ll just re-read the same passage over and over again, one that I hadn’t seen the true beauty of before.”

The movie, says Buckner, is an attempt to encourage people to read and appreciate Moby-Dick.

“Really get in there and figure out why there are still people across this world paying more attention to this and taking more life advice from its pages like it were that other ‘Good Book,’” says Buckner. “Melville gave us a genuine masterpiece of prose, storytelling, character, philosophy, form, and structure. It is a wicked book.”

The film is free and open to the public. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion as well, and will include NKU artist alumni, Aaron Zlatkin, along with Caitlin Sparks. The panel will be moderated by Sara Drabnik, with NKU’s electronic media and broadcasting. At 1:00 p.m., Dr. Wallace will lead those who wish on a walking tour of NKU’s floating collection of Moby-Dick art.

Contact the Northern Kentucky Tribune at news@nkytrib.com

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