The story of a man, and a profession, close to the heart of Newport Beach is set to premiere on the big screen.
The film “Part of Water” tells the risks of being a lifeguard and specifically the story of Ben Carlson, who became Newport’s first and only lifeguard to die in the line of duty when he drowned while rescuing a struggling swimmer in 2014.
The documentary will close the Newport Beach Film Festival on Thursday night.
Area filmmakers Tim Burnham and Jack Murgatroyd started working on “Part of Water” three years ago after completing their first joint effort, the surf documentary “Dirty Old Wedge.”
They see this 60-minute journalistic treatment of lifeguard work — which features Carlson’s colleagues, family members and the man who was his final rescue — as the anti-“Baywatch.” There is no slow-motion jogging into soapy story lines — just lifesaving on a par with firefighters and police officers.
“It’s a profession that needs to be taken seriously and respected,” Murgatroyd said.
Carlson, 32, was a skilled waterman with 15 years of lifeguarding experience. Burnham, a friend of Carlson’s, said his death was a wake-up call to the dangers of keeping swimmers, surfers and sunbathers safe in vast and volatile waters.
Newport Beach reminds itself and visitors of that every day. Carlson’s likeness is easily found around town, especially near the Balboa Peninsula beaches he patrolled. It’s on a mural outside Balboa Fitness across from the Newport Pier and on another on the Burr White Realty office a few blocks away. A statue of Carlson scanning the horizon anchors McFadden Plaza at the Newport Pier’s end, and the city lifeguard headquarters is named in his honor.
The Ben Carlson Memorial & Scholarship Foundation carries on his legacy with ocean safety and appreciation programs. And every July 6, the anniversary of Carlson’s death, residents and colleagues gather on the beach to salute his sacrifice.
“If it had to happen, if you were forced into losing a child, I couldn’t be more proud of the way Ben lost his life,” his father, Chris Carlson, says in the film.
The swells were larger than usual on July 6, 2014. Carlson, a seasonal lifeguard, was manning a rescue boat when he plunged into the heavy surf to help a distressed swimmer, introduced in the film only as Jerry.
Murgatroyd said Jerry was familiar with the ocean, but on that holiday weekend he was more excited about getting in the water than reading it.
“That’s what lifeguards are for,” Murgatroyd said. “They’re there to help us when we get into situations like that.”
A crashing wave knocked Jerry and Carlson underwater. Jerry, clutching the buoy Carlson gave him, surfaced unhurt.
Backup arrived quickly, and everyone made it back to shore safely except Carlson. Searchers found his body three hours later near the Newport Pier.
Murgatroyd said Jerry’s recollection in the film was the first time he had opened up about his experience, bringing a powerful voice to the story.
In 2016, “Dirty Old Wedge” became the top ticket-seller in Newport Beach Film Festival history as people flocked to see Burnham and Murgatroyd’s history of the Wedge, Newport’s famous surf break. “Part of Water” also has generated keen interest. Film-only tickets to Thursday’s screening are sold out, though spots remained with the purchase of a ticket for the film and closing-night party.
Another chance to see “Part of Water” will come May 18 when the Newport Harbor High School Alumni Assn. holds an all-day “Part of Water” Festival at the school.
‘Part of Water’ screenings
What: Newport Beach Film Festival
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach
Cost: $95 for film and closing-night party (ages 21 and up). Film-only tickets are sold out.
Tickets and information: newportbeachfilmfest.com/event/part-of-water
What: “Part of Water” Festival
When: Noon, 2:30, 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. May 18
Where: Robert B. Wentz Theater, Newport Harbor High School, 600 Irvine Ave., Newport Beach
Cost: $10 to $30
Tickets and information: newportharboralumni.org/movie