In the midst of A-list celebrities and filmmakers walking down the red carpet at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, UC Santa Barbara students’ documentaries were celebrated at the Santa Barbara Documentary Shorts event on Feb. 13 and 16 at the Metropolitan Metro 4 Theatre. 

“The Salt on our Skin” and “841” were created by UCSB students through the Coastal Media Project nine-week summer program. 

The program combines environmental and film and media studies, taking students on a one-week trip to Santa Cruz Island to practice shooting B-roll. 

“The Salt on our Skin” highlights various ocean cultures, combining stories of ocean-centric practices from the Chumash, an Orange County Latinx surf club and UCSB researcher Dr. Xochitl Clare. 

Second-year environmental studies student Reese Raygoza produced, co-directed and worked on sound production on the film. 

“We just wanted to create a film about people … That’d be really cool if we all do these three different groups and kind of create that narrative of their parallel connection, ” Raygoza said. 

Raygoza said she felt a duty to include the story of the Chumash people in “The Salt on our Skin” as UCSB and most of Santa Barbara is on their land. 

“In filmmaking with native groups, it’s really important to create meaningful and actual, genuine connections because you’re obviously not going to get the same story if you’re like a stranger,” Raygoza said. 

The film includes interviews with Mia Lopez and brothers Casmali and Chimaway Lopez. 

Coming back from Santa Cruz Island, Raygoza sat beside the Lopez brothers, and as they made small conversation, Raygoza told them about what she wanted to base her film on. 

“They were like ‘Interview us, interview us.’ Since then, it just took off and they were inviting us into their space,” said Raygoza. 

Raygoza and the rest of the crew were also invited to the Chumash tomol crossing, which, according to Raygoza, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In traditional Chumash canoes, the community paddles across the Santa Barbara Channel to Santa Cruz Island. “The Salt on our Skin” was able to capture and include footage of this celebration and it became a beautiful scene in the documentary short. 

Courtesy of “Salt on Our Skin”

As Raygoza is from Orange County and an avid surfer, she reached out to a Latinx surf club based in Huntington Beach upon a recommendation from another girl who worked on the film. This aspect of the film focused on inequalities and barriers faced in the surf community, especially for people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

To complement the Chumash and Latinx surf club, Dr. Clare talked about her experience as a female, Black scientific diver. She has roots in both Jamaica and Belize and grew up in a culturally coastal household. However, although she was raised in this manner, she did not learn how to swim until college. After learning to swim, she learned how to dive. After learning to dive, Clare learned to scientific dive, all within a matter of two years. 

“We emailed her and she’s super cool. A lot of people want her to be in their films. She sent us her brochure of her rates. She was like ‘actually here are my rates, but I’ll do this for free because I love the Coastal Media Project,’” Raygoza said. “We were like ‘Okay, good, because we don’t have any money.’”

All three communities that “The Salt of our Skin” focused on emphasized the fact that the ocean is not always accessible to everyone, even though there is so much of it. 

“The ocean has historically not been a place for diverse communities to join and celebrate because of redlining and the luxury of being outdoors in itself,” Raygoza shared.

What the “The Salt on our Skin” doesn’t touch on, though, is the reverse effect of taking advantage of the ocean: its effect on sealife. While “The Salt on our Skin” focuses on humans and the ocean, its Coastal Media Project counterpart, “841,” focuses on animals and the ocean — more specifically, sea otters. 

“841” chronicles the tale of Santa Cruz’s most sought after celebrity: Otter 841. The otter became a social media sensation the summer of 2023 for being overly friendly with humans and even going so far as to steal surfboards, and debate began to circulate as to whether or not Otter 841 should be brought into captivity.

Courtesy of Mark Woodward

The documentary short follows this debate, steering the conversation away from social media and into the science behind 841 through three major characters: surfers Circus Joe, photographer Mark Woodward and Sea Otter Savvy Director and Senior Scientist Gena Bentall. Joe fought against 841’s captivity, Woodward advised listening to the experts and Bentall laid out the facts. 

“I think everyday we came back from filming we were like, ‘Oh, keep her free’ or ‘Oh, she needs to be taken in.’ Everyday it switched up while we were filming, but definitely while we were editing we wanted to try to be as neutral as possible so people could try and formulate her own opinions,” fourth-year environmental studies major Macielle Villaseñor and producer of “841” said. 

The crew interviewed and shot footage in a five-day period. They were lucky enough to capture 841 swimming on day two, so they didn’t have to worry about making a film about 841 without her. But, even though they were able to get a few shots of 841, they didn’t want the film to be another piece of media sensationalizing the whole situation.

“We wanted to be intentional of not just putting a cute otter on screen and capturing people’s attention in that way, but more just leaning into the complexity of the story,” fourth-year film and media studies major and director of “841” Rachel Burnett said. 

“We totally could have just put a bunch of footage of sea otters and made that our film. But, like [Burnett] mentioned, we were super intentional of how much screen time we were giving 841,”  Vincent Cuenco, fourth-year environmental studies major and editor of the film said. “We also just wanted to focus on the virality of the story — a lot of people were engaging with this story through social media.”

The product was a combination of footage of 841, clips from social media about 841 and the science behind capturing a wild animal. There was debate as to whether to protect the humans or protect the sea otter, and the consequences that come with either decision. 

Courtesy of “841”

To any students, both film and media studies majors and students pursuing other fields, the teams of “The Salt on our Skin” and “841” advise jumping into the industry if the interest is there.

“If you have a really good story and something you really want to tell and something you are super passionate about, that’s shown through your work,” Raygoza said. 

“Expect it to be a collaborative experience. You’re not going to be making the film yourself. ‘841’ is the brainchild of everyone on the crew. And be flexible, the story changes so many times,” Cuenco said. 

Villaseñor reflected on the novel experience that the Coastal Media Project grants students. “I think for a first-time experience, a program like this one was really beneficial, because you learn from your peers and all the other film majors in there have some experience,” Villaseñor said. 

Fourth-year geography student Lauren Barley, who worked on sound mixing and design for “841,” continued on this theme of student opportunities. “If you’re a UCSB student, just take full advantage of all of the opportunities we have, because we have a lot,” 

“The Salt on our Skin” and “841” are still premiering at film festivals right now, so they are unable to be streamed online, but keep on the lookout in the future.