Filmmaker Michael Kirk and his family found themselves at home in the Florida Keys when they first visited during an RV trip a few years ago.
“We loved it and always said we’d come back,” said Kirk, who had been working on films and television productions in Nashville and Central Florida. When COVID hit, a job in Charlotte, North Carolina fell through, and the Florida Keys called the Kirks back, as the island chain tends to do to those who know they belong here.
“We made the decision a little over a year ago that this is where we want to be,” said Kirk, who quickly “got hooked” on the community, its culture and, yes, its characters.
Kirk met and began working on Big Pine with radio host and podcaster Matt Asher.
The thought of directing a documentary about Key West’s storied history hadn’t occurred to him until Tom Greenwood, a historical consultant, invited Kirk to tour the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House with curator Cori Convertito.
“I was so impressed exploring their private collections and just absorbing everything about this island,” he recalled. “Then I asked, ‘Didn’t I hear something about a 200th anniversary or bicentennial event?’”
Greenwood and Convertito detailed the plans for the year-long celebration commemorating the 200th anniversary of Key West becoming a U.S. territory. (The city was actually incorporated a few years later.)
“So they’re walking me through all these plans to honor the island’s history, and my first question was, ‘That sounds amazing. Who’s handling the film portion of it?’ Cori and Tom looked at each other, then at me, and said, ‘No one. You should do it.’ I didn’t hesitate and instantly said, ‘I will.’”
The film, “Key West: 200 Years of History & Culture,” was born. It wasn’t yet funded, but the seed was planted.
Kirk’s two-word answer sealed his fate for the next four and a half months as he set to work researching, interviewing, producing and directing a feature-length documentary film.
“I wanted to do this for the community that made us feel so welcome,” Kirk said. “It’s the first true and honest documentation of Key West’s full history. I felt excited, honored and obligated to do it.”
The film is the first ever to dive deep into the diverse history of a fiercely independent island that’s unlike any other.
Kirk partnered with the KWAHS and worked with Convertito, Greenwood and Key Wester extraordinaire George Fernandez.
“We formed a small task force, and I said, ‘We’re going to need to raise money.’ Jean Carper and Blake Hunter were the first two people to step and make this happen. Then we added more and more great sponsors — businesses and individuals. We worked our butts off and got it done in four and a half months.”
Documentaries of this scope — 1 hour 42 minutes — typically take eight to 12 months to produce, Kirk said, adding that he’s thrilled to have partnered also with the Monroe County School District. “The superintendent has a team of folks who will break down each segment for third, eighth and 11th graders and turn them into history lessons so students can really see their island’s visual history instead of just reading about it somewhere.”
A shortened version of the film will also live for the next decade or so at the Custom House, where tourists will be able to view it and gain a better understanding of where they and where it came from.
The film’s world premiere takes place Friday, April 15 with a free, outdoor screening at the Parade Grounds at Fort East Martello on South Roosevelt Boulevard. Doors open at 7 p.m. Musician Nick Norman takes the stage for a few songs to start the show, and the film starts at 8 p.m. “We’re calling it an old-fashioned picnic,” Kirk said. “Bring coolers, chairs and blankets and have a great time.”
(Michael Kirk sends his unending gratitude to the following people, who made the film possible: executive producers Jean Carper, Blake Hunter; co-producer Marial Martyn; narrators Scott Atwell and Kristi Ann; director of photography Steve Panariello; Editor Chad Newman; 1st camera assistant Krzysztof Madro; photographers Rob O’Neal and Nick Doll. And special thanks to: Carol Shaughnessy, Liz Young, Jennifer McComb, George Fernandez, Tom Greenwood, Theresa Axford, Paul Menta and Andy Newman.)