Prizm News / June 24, 2019 / By Ken Schneck

Photo courtesy of Colston Young

A new documentary dives beneath the surface of the famed West Hollywood Aquatics Club

We all know the culture-altering power of protesting, marching, and picketing. A new documentary adds another—and unexpected—form of activism to the mix: swimming. 

Light in the Water introduces audiences to the West Hollywood Aquatics Club, the first openly gay masters swim team. First formed in 1982 to train swimmers for the inaugural Gay Olympic Games, the club has steadfastly persisted throughout the past four decades of LGBTQ history, enduring antigay attempts to limit equality and surviving the devastation that HIV and AIDS wreaked on their team. The documentary has been making the rounds all over the country, including screenings in Columbus and at the Cleveland International Film Festival where the filmmakers took time out to swim with the Cleveland Aquatics Team. With the film now available on iTunes, Amazon, and Vimeo, director Lis Bartlett spoke with Prizm about her experience making the film, why she chose this subject for her first feature documentary, and what swimming can do to change the world. 

Photo courtesy of Lis Bartlett

How did you come to learn about the West Hollywood Aquatics Club?

I have been a swimmer since middle school, and it has remained a passion of mine. When I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago to pursue filmmaking, I found the West Hollywood Aquatics Club. They are a family that welcomed me as an ally, and I felt so humbled and grateful to be welcomed. 

At what point did you say, “Wait, this would for make a great documentary!”?

For me, the club made LA feel like home. Our team is just so welcoming. Every time there is a new swimmer in the pool, we announce their presence. It’s such a nonjudgmental space, so I wanted to capture that. At first I wanted to make a short film that shined a light on this inclusive space. But when you dig deeper, this is a group that has been around for 36 years, which presents the unique opportunity to look at progress and LGBT culture. Someone told me the club’s history, and I couldn’t believe a film hadn’t been made yet: how much they’ve done, how many people have died, they’ve just been through so much.  

You have called the film a “labor of love.” What has the process been like to get this content on the screen?

Look, if you don’t love the subject of your film, it won’t get done. Light in the Water started as a passion project for me and another team member. We said, “Let’s make a short film. Hopefully it will be something great.” We did fundraising within the team. We raised enough money to hire an editor. Then the film kept getting bigger and bigger and suddenly it had turned into a 3-year project. After we got a rough cut, someone from Logo saw it and the network came on board as an investor. The affiliation with Logo made everything more legitimate. 

What does this film have to teach us about Pride?

A lot of the younger people that we talk to were curious to hear about the perspective of the older people, and a lot of older people say that since the movie has come out, pride has increased at swimming competitions.  There’s this feeling out there that most of the swimmers going to the Gay Games and [the International LGBTQ+ Aquatics] competitions are older swimmers, and that younger swimmers don’t need gay specific meets. But at the Gay Games in Paris, there were hundreds of gay swimmers of all ages. We attribute some of that to Trump era stirring up resistance and pride, but some people on the team say that the movie has done that as well. The older swimmers say they have more visibility now. 

Photo courtesy of Lis Bartlett

The passing of 38 members of the West Hollywood Aquatics Club to HIV and AIDS was devastating to watch on the screen. How has the club navigated such loss?

John Bauer, who is in the movie, and I have been to some of the film festivals together and we’ve talked a lot about that loss. John has said that the recognition is happening right now, where people are finally coming out of what happened in the AIDS crisis and are able to talk about it in a new way. That’s the benefit of movies and documentaries and interviews. Otherwise, that loss just doesn’t come up that often. There is an inherent amazing quality being part of an intergenerational group like this swim team. If you can’t find those resources in your biological family, you have them there on your swim team, and that includes talking about the tough times we have all been through. 

You have now completed your first feature documentary and it’s a stunner. What did you learn about yourself through Light in the Water?

This film was a big challenge for me, most definitely the biggest thing I’ve taken on. Just learning that I could do it was a big deal. Sometimes I wonder if it was necessary to push so hard to get it done so urgently, but that’s how projects get completed. I really needed to prove to myself that I could make a film like this and do the content justice. Now, I know that I can and there are more films to make.