On the Waterfront
"Some call it a neighborhood; I call it a state of mind," the late Ed Kane,
founder of Ed Kane's Water Taxi, says of Baltimore's Fell's Point in the opening
minutes of producer/director Jacquie Greff's 2004 documentary Fell's
Point Out of Time. "It is an area that for more than 200 years has
been in a state of transition. It still doesn't know what it wants to be when
it grows up."
And in a sense, Kane's summation of the dynamic waterfront community – home
throughout the centuries to sailors, shipbuilders, immigrants, sundry ne'er-do-wells
(and, more recently, successful up-and-comers) – could just as well
apply to Greff, who, along with her husband Kraig, runs the media production
company Tonal Vision
LLC, through which she produced and distributes the film. After all,
the native Iowan hasn't been making movies for very long – a couple
of years at most. But like the neighborhood celebrated in her feature-length
debut, Greff has a certain knack for reinventing herself every so often…
It brings a
kind of life and
that you wouldn't
have if everything
was calm and
After earning her MBA at Arizona State University, Greff took a position
in research and development with Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio,
where her projected three-to-five-year stint in fact turned into 20.
"When you come from a family that doesn't have very much money, and all
of a sudden you have this well-paying corporate job, (it's tough to walk
away from)," she admits.
Greff's extensive work in regulatory affairs prompted her to enroll in
law classes at the University of Northern Kentucky, "the only law school
around Cincinnati that did nights." When Procter & Gamble transferred her
to their facility in Hunt Valley, Maryland, in the early 1990s, she picked
up night classes at the University of Maryland (passing the bar in 1996).
From the moment the couple settled in Fell's Point there was talk of
making a documentary on the area.
"When we first moved here we had this idea about doing something visually for
Fell's Point, because there wasn't anything [on it] and it's just such
a neat area, but we didn't do anything about it for 10 years except occasionally
talk about it," admits Greff. Kraig, who had founded Tonal Vision in Cincinnati
as a strictly audio-based company, continued to work in commercial production,
but Greff's daily commute to Hunt Valley for 60- to 80-hour work weeks
precluded much involvement on her part.
A number of convergent circumstances, however, forced Greff to reappraise
her position in life.
"Kraig and I started talking about what we would do if we could actually
work together," she explains. Upon accepting an early retirement package
from Procter & Gamble in 2002, Greff decided to find out.
Looking to bring her own angle to Tonal Vision, Greff decided to try
her hand at the visual. "We bought [a] video camera," she adds. "After
I left P&G, we took two weeks and went to Greece, and I used [the trip]
to try to get used to the video camera. Then I started doing other projects.
At first, I would do something where, you know, ‘we'll split the
profits if there are any' kinds of things, so it was a learning experience.
Then at some point I decided I needed some actual formal credentials; I
had lots of credentials, but they were in the wrong field."
To this end, she enrolled in courses at American University, from which
she obtained a masters degree in film and video production. For her thesis
project, Greff laid down "a couple thousand dollars" of her own money and
returned home to her adopted neighborhood, drawing on the characters and
experiences that she and her husband had come to know. After 10 years of "occasionally" talking
about it, the Fell's Point documentary was about to get underway.
"If you're a historian, typically you'll write a narrative; the narrative
will tell the story, and then you'll get sound bites here and there," Greff
"[But] I didn't want to do that. [Instead], we did about 25 interviews.
The thing is not narrated; every sound bite is from people that we interviewed.
Some of them aren't even living anymore, and some of them are barely alive.
Like Ed Kane, who started the Water Taxi – he died the day after
I did the second interview with him."
"It makes it more difficult to put together," she acknowledges, "but
you hear the real voices of the real people giving their
points of view."
Supplementing Greff's own footage are numerous stills and illustrations
culled from the Preservation
Society, the Library of
Congress and various local individuals.
"To be really honest, I am not into history, [but] you can't deal with
Fell's Point without [dealing with] history," Greff admits. "When I came
here, there were all these people struggling and arguing passionately…and
it brings a kind of life and a vibrancy that you wouldn't have if everything
was calm and people weren't fighting. The sociology of the area and all
the changes it's going through and the different people that come here,
and why they're here – that, to me, is what's interesting. Knowing
what I know about Fell's Point now, I know why they care, and I have a
respect for what that brings to the community."
Since producing Fell's Point Out of Time, Greff has worked to
steadily build Tonal Vision's visual projects (including special-event
videography and various instructional and music videos), all the while
vigilant for opportunities to incorporate her legal background.
"I know enough to keep myself out of trouble, and I think I would know
enough to know when I really need to pay somebody else who is up to date
in the field," she notes.
"I'm still looking for ways I could do film and law together. I was thinking
[about using video to] help translate some of the legal stuff, make it
more understandable to the common person. I haven't found any kind of niche
like that, but I'm looking."
As for projects of personal interest, there is talk of making another
"[Kraig] and I are talking about doing something on the accordion," she
explains. Currently, Kraig plays accordion for the Crawdaddies,
"Cajun, Zydeco, Funk, Swing, Soul, Reggae, Roots and Rock"-infused band
which he helped found in the mid-'90s. "He's been playing the accordion
since he was five.
"When you do something on your own – I mean, partly it's passion
and partly it's something that you're interested in – but you also
have control that you don't have when somebody else is paying you. And
trying to get paid for something that you have control of and that you want to
do – that's the hardest thing, I think.
"The Fell's Point documentary – I'll be lucky if I break even on
it. It was a really good community service, and anybody in Fell's Point – people
have watched it four and five times. We transcribed all of the interviews,
and the Preservation Society has copies of them."
But those pages are not without the dog-ears of hard-won wisdom known
to many who have tread the time-worn cobbles of the Baltimore waterfront.
"If you want to follow your heart full-time," Greff chuckles, "you'd
better have some independent financing."