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As filmmaker comes alive, so does ‘Fifty Lakes One Island’

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Updated: June 8, 2013 7:55PM

As the first night scene with the Northern Lights in ‘‘Fifty Lakes One Island’’ flared across the screen, a siren wailed out on Division Street by Chopin Theatre.

There’s the juxtaposition of George Desort’s new documentary film, which made its Chicago debut May 22 — the nature world viewed against the context of the thoroughly modern one.

That’s why the outdoors matter, answering the question of where we fit here and now in the natural world.

Desort, who grew up in Riverside, spent 80 nights on Isle Royale, the famed wilderness island on Lake Superior, in 2011 and filmed the experience. He traveled alone, with camera equipment and food in his kayak, out of base camps.

Within that context, he explored the lakes (officially, there are a few shy of 50 lakes on Isle Royale) and surrounding rugged terrain and filmed the spectacular landscape.

It’s one thing to hike rugged terrain, quite an additional burden to do it twice: once to set the camera, then to film yourself.

There are dozens, probably hundreds, of quality films and documentaries on the natural beauty of wilderness areas. Desort’s first full-length documentary, ‘‘Fortunate Wilderness, the Wolf and Moose Study of Isle Royale,’’ in a sense fits in that. It was a finalist at the 2009 International Wildlife Film Festival. One side of ‘‘Fifty Lakes One Island’’ captures that sense of the wilderness wonderfully, from stark images of moose and moose antlers to the Northern Lights.

In the question-and-answer period, Desort had an interesting observation that the Northern Lights looked even more impressive on film than in real life. I tend to agree with him.

But what mattered to me were the scenes where Desort was conversing with the camera, all alone on Isle Royale during weeks that intensely tested his physical and mental limits.

That cut to the heart of the matter. Those scenes tended to be filmed in tight frames, where the natural world was a faint backdrop (generally), often involving food or drink. The wilderness scenes tended to be wider shots.

Those conversations with the camera were intense, as they should be if honestly done. And intense not just in terms of the mental state, but the physical one as well.

Desort put it very simply at one point: ‘‘I am pretty hungry all the time.’’

Anybody who has done long-distance backpacking or paddling can tell you that the overriding desire for food is often more compelling than the desire to think deep thoughts in those wild experiences.

At the same time, the pairing of the intensely physical and intensely mental is what makes experiences such as Desort’s vital, important.

Or, as he put it, ‘‘So alive.’’

Truly alive in an intense physical and emotional time, such as an extended paddling or hiking trip in the wilderness, is treading the edge of madness, or at least what seems madness compared to regular life.

One of the more stark moments came when a loon loudly interrupted a rumination trending toward the profound, a moment when Desort’s psyche appeared stripped as bare as his physical body in the swimming or bathing scenes.

That’s what separates ‘‘Fifty Lakes One Island’’ out in the wild — it opens a view of the wild as well as the soul.

A website is coming, possibly this month. The film is doing the film festival circuit. To see a trailer, go to

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