On a Saturday night in late August, the oyster community of Willapa Bay has gathered in the Raymond Theater to watch themselves on the screen. Local boy Keith Cox had gone off to Hollywood, but then returned to document his home and the life of Willapa Bay and its oystering.

Every seat in the elegant old theater is full, and the room is buzzing.

Cox is premiering the eighth in a series of documentaries on the bay, on oyster farming, on the oystermen themselves. What started out as an innocent project intended to summarize the industry has led to over 130 interviews, over 350 hours of new footage, and seven hours of documentary.

Sitting next to me is Dorwin Fosse, a retired boat builder. In addition to running the South Bend Boat Shop, which started in 1926, his family has owned an oyster bed for over a hundred years.

“I see three and four generations here,” he says. “It’s a pretty close-knit community.”

The final installment of the documentary runs for two hours, but the audience is rapt as they take turns on screen talking about the oyster life.

With half its volume changing with every tide, the 260-square-mile Willapa Bay is one of the most pristine estuaries in the United States. It is hard to find a better place to grow a healthy and luscious oyster. Nearly 10 percent of the oysters produced in the United States come from Willapa Bay.

The morning after the premiere, Cox and I visit in the closed-in porch of his father’s house overlooking the bay. We can see open ocean beyond the tip of Long Beach.

“I grew up seeing the tide come in and out and all the boats out on the water,” says Cox. “People comment, ‘I never realized what all took place out there.’ That was me. Before I started the project four years ago, I would have said that.”

Cox’s father Dave ’71 bought him his first camera when he was 10 years old. With it began an obsession with visual imagery and storytelling.

When Cox and his wife Rachel graduated from WSU in 1998, they loaded up their jeep and headed straight for Los Angeles. He put in a stint as a seating host in a restaurant in order to pay the bills, but by 2001, he had produced the documentary that comes as an “additional feature” on the second DVD for The Pianist. Since then, he has worked on 150 movies.

But he wanted to do something of his own. So he started visiting his hometown and talking with his neighbors. One interview led to the next, to several more, as he sought stories and understanding. Over the next four years, he got “a college education in the oyster process.”

“I have to understand it in order to tell it,” he says.

In spite of the apparently exhaustive coverage in his documentary, Cox is acutely aware of how much did not make it into the final product.

“What I did is like that one little stake out in the estuary,” he says, pointing to a marker, a half-mile out, indicating an oyster bed.

“We’re not only talking about 160 years,” he says, referring to the commercial history of the bay. The Chinook people had lived on the bay for centuries and undoubtedly enjoyed its native Olympia oysters.

Beyond the history are the ecology of the bay, the effects of tides on its topography, and effects such as the “fattening line,” the imaginary line marking the more nutrient rich part of the bay that is steadily moving northward.

Obviously, Cox did not produce a seven-hour documentary for the money.

“My goal was to do something for the community,” he says.

Indeed, the story of his storytelling is one of continuity, of community, of family, of the value of embracing history.

The audience at the Raymond theater understood that as they gave him a standing ovation for telling their stories.

Tim Steury, editor


Web extra

Willapa Bay Oysters videoVideo: Willapa Bay Oysters
“Willapa Bay Oysters” is a seven-part video documentary series by Keith Cox, sharing the stories of the oyster men and women of Willapa Bay, in Washington State.