Anne Via McCollough '85's first career was as an educator, teaching students Latin, German, French, and Spanish.
Now, she is teaching in a new way, one she never envisioned when she was in school. She has become a film producer and director, with a recently-released documentary that is drawing critical acclaim at festivals.
Full Circle celebrates the Great Gull Island Project, conservationist Helen Hays's 50-year quest to save two species of threatened seabirds. During her study, which began in 1969, Hays vastly increased the numbers of nesting Roseate and Common Terns on a small, uninhabited island in New York's Long Island Sound.
McCollough's project has been five years in the making - filming started in April 2016. Her hard work is paying off though - the documentary has been an official selection at more than 10 film festivals so far, including EcoBrasilFest, the Harlem International Film Festival (where it was awarded The New York Vision Award), the New Jersey International Film Festival (where it won Best Documentary), and the Buenos Aires International Film Festival.
“Making this film has been wonderful, partly because everything has been new. It’s really great to be able to keep learning in your 50s,” McCollough said.
While at Norfolk Academy McCollough immersed herself in foreign languages and cultures. She studied Latin, German, and Spanish and took part in both the German Exchange Program and an Academy trip to Spain. As an Upper School student she had the opportunity to live with families in Peru and in Colombia.
“Those experiences in other countries helped me learn so much about life and people and through that I really began to understand who I was," she said. She credits the influence of NA teachers including Katherine Holmes, Chris Nelson, Cecil Mays, Stephanie Pope, Audrey Brinkley, and Rita Lupton with opening the world to her through foreign languages and giving her the confidence to take on new challenges.
After graduating from Georgetown University in 1989, McCollough earned a Master's degree in German from Middlebury College. After teaching foreign languages for some years, she had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mother. Her son James had a keen interest in birds as a young child, and it was through her support of James that she had a chance to learn about birds herself.
In 2005, that led her to a volunteer job with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, assisting the Collections Manager of the Department of Ornithology. Hays's office for the Great Gull Island Project was down the hall from hers. McCollough volunteered on the island and she and Hays formed a friendship.
Fast forward about a decade, and McCollough began thinking about the best ways to commemorate Hays as she approached a half-century working on the Great Gull Island Project. After talking with friends, some of whom were involved in media, she decided to make a movie.
McCollough has no background in film, but credits aspects of her Academy education for developing her skills. Her immersion into different cultures made her comfortable and knowledgeable for parts of the documentary that were shot abroad. Additionally, McCollough credits Dance Master Elbert Watson, who taught her so many things about connecting with an audience.
Fellow Academy graduates have also helped, including filmmaker Ian Williams '85, who has been a great sounding board, and Ned Henry '88, who composed and played some of the music in the film.
McCollough's future? Taking Flight Productions has already filmed another documentary, focused on the Hudson Bay Project, another 50-year research project - this one focused on factors that influence community ecology in a coastal lowland, sub-arctic ecosystem near Churchill, Manitoba. She hopes to complete that work in 2022 or 2023.
She also continues to hit the film festival circuit. Flickers' Rhode Island International Film Festival is in mid-August, followed by the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival later that month.
“I feel like it has been such a privilege to get to do this," she said, “and I hope it helps secure the future of Great Gull Island, increases awareness, and encourages others to get involved.”
From the film synopsis:
Full Circle celebrates the Great Gull Island Project, Helen Hays's 50-year quest to save two species of threatened seabirds. During her study, Hays vastly increased the numbers of nesting Roseate and Common Terns on a small, uninhabited island in Long Island Sound.
The film reveals the nesting season of the terns up close - arrival, courtship, hatching, feeding, fledging - and highlights volunteers who Hays fostered and inspired over the decades; her extensive collaboration with scientists in Argentina, Brazil, and the Azores; and her connection with a small fishing village on the north coast of Brazil.
Hays's dedication has helped complete an important circle, not only in conservation efforts, but also in connecting people from all over the globe… people who were once strangers are now friends and colleagues working together for a common cause.
To learn more about The Great Gull Project, and to view a trailer for the film, visit takingflightproductions.com.