It was shaping up to be one of the most charming cultural events Long Island had to offer: The Maritime Film Festival, a five-film event devoted to such ocean-related activities as boating, clamming and shipbuilding. It was being presented by Long Island Traditions, a Port Washington not-for-profit that documents the history of local maritime and farming culture, and which played a crucial role in the creation of one of the films, a documentary titled "A World Within a World." The film's subject: the tumble-down little homes known as bay houses that dot the marshlands of the South Shore.
The film screened once, at Huntington's Cinema Arts Centre, on the opening night of the festival. That was March 15.
"The next day, everything got shut down," says Nancy Solomon, executive director of Long Island Traditions, referring to the widespread shuttering of businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. "And we had a sold-out crowd for everything."
The festival may not happen for another year or two, according to Solomon, but in the meantime "A World Within a World" will air on PBS— once on Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. on WLIW/21 and again on Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. on WNET/13 as part of the "Treasures of New York" series. It's a chance to see a documentary about a niche subject that exists right in Long Island's backyard. Directed by Barbara Weber, the film focuses not only on bay houses — simple little cottages often built as sleeping quarters for duck-hunters — but on the families who have owned them for generations.
Solomon, who is featured in the film, is something of an expert on bay houses, having interviewed roughly 100 owners for a book she wrote in the early 1990s. She helped put Weber in touch with the families she had gotten to know over the years.
"I was a little nervous because other filmmakers had all these grandiose ideas, but they didn't seem to grasp that these were family-owned buildings with a long history," says Solmon. Weber, she says, "seemed to get it."
As humble as they are, bay houses are unique, according to Weber. "There are very few places in the world that have similar structures — maybe somewhere in Sweden or in Finland," she said in an interview shortly before the festival. "Otherwise, you can't find these kinds of things anywhere on the planet."
For Solomon, a folklorist and architectural historian, "A World Within a World" pays tribute to a kind of homegrown edifice that might be in danger of disappearing. "It's something you don’t see very much anymore. Who builds their own houses these days?" she says. "And who knows, with climate change we may not see them in 50 years."