By now, most people have heard of the feature film Dolphin Tale, but there is another true dolphin story out there worth seeing, a remarkable film called The Whale.
This beautifully shot documentary tells the moving story of Luna, an infant killer whale who got separated from his family deep within a rugged fjord on Vancouver Island (killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family). With no other orcas to bond with, Luna begins bonding with boaters and other people on the sound. What happens next is touching and quite amazing.
The film's executive oroducers are Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson, and the narration is provided by Reynolds, who grew up in British Columbia. The Whale was a New York Times Critics' Pick and The Seattle Times called it, "A gorgeous and provocative film."
This brief clip of Luna playing with a fire hose and boaters in Nootka Sound will give some idea of what this little movie is all about.
I recently spoke with the couple who directed and produced The Whale, journalists Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm.
What is the basic plot line of The Whale?
It's a lot like the story of ET, the Extra Terrestrial. A young visitor from another world -- a killer whale from the sea -- shows up among humans on the rugged Canadian west coast, and tries to make contact with people -- probably because, in an orca way, he's lonely. This causes both joy and worry among the people who meet him and love him, then leads to conflict among scientists, Native Americans, residents of a remote town, and outside partisans who all disagree about how he should be treated. The little whale, nicknamed Luna, changes lives through his determination to make friendly contact, and causes upheaval in the small town and wonder around the world. Then, just like in ET, a government agency decides to capture him -- for his own good, and things get crazy, moving, and transforming, both for Luna and for the people around him.
How did Luna get lost and why couldn't he find his family again?
No one knows how Luna lost track of his family. Since orcas are among the most social mammals on Earth, it is extremely unusual for members of pods to become lost. Scientists speculate that, since there appears to be a form of mentoring that happens in pods, in which older relatives take young ones out for what look like training lessons in fishing or exploring, it is possible that Luna was with an uncle, who disappeared at the same time he did. Perhaps that uncle died in Nootka Sound, where Luna was found, and Luna just stayed there. It's also possible that he just strayed off from the pod by being adventurous.
What role did Ryan Reynolds and Scarlet Johansson play in making The Whale?
We showed an earlier version of the film to Ryan, who loved it. He showed it to Scarlett, and she loved it as well. They joined the film as executive producers, and Ryan narrated. They both helped us with ideas of how to make the film better. Ryan, who grew up in Vancouver, near where Luna's family spends much of the year, added some touches of his own to the narration as we were recording it.
Do they have a personal interest in this story, or killer whales in general?
Ryan, particularly, knows the whales and Luna's family from whale watching trips he took as a child. In addition, one of his brothers is a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in a community not far from where Luna tried to befriend people. Ryan recently described his interest in the story to the Humane Society of the United States this way:
The story was so compelling. The idea that this creature challenged so much of our presumptions about wildlife. That a whale could, would and did reach across that line to connect with us is mystifying. Scientists often debunk the idea that a mammal could experience emotions and/or feelings similar to ours. Luna did this. Luna showed it's possible for a creature -- even a whale -- to crave connection. Not only needing this connection but demanding it.
How did the two of you become involved in this project?
We live in British Columbia and started reading in the newspapers about very unusual things happening on the northern coast of Vancouver Island. We told Smithsonian Magazine about it, and were given an assignment to write a short article. We moved to the town of Gold River, near where Luna had appeared, expecting to stay there for three or four weeks. We wound up living there full time for almost three years, because the story became so compelling
What message do you think the story of Luna gives to audiences?
This is not an advocacy film. It does not have an aggressive message about political issues. It's a narrative, a story, so instead of a message it has layers of meaning. Those layers are there for the audience to discover, and in many cases to sort out for themselves. As one of the characters in the film says, the meaning of this adventure will be different for every one of us. To us it is about the nature of friendship and the mysteries of other lives, and we believe the questions The Whale asks but does not answer are probably the most important parts of the film.
How did you obtain such great footage of the young whale playing with boats and boaters?
Some of the footage was taken by other people during Luna's early days in Nootka Sound. We started filming when we arrived mainly as a backup for the research we were doing for the Smithsonian magazine article. But as we saw more and more of Luna and as the story developed we just kept filming, and the story sort of assembled itself before our eyes as it happened. We just kept the camera running and recorded what we saw, and eventually it turned into a movie. All the underwater footage, which has drawn many comments, was filmed with a remote camera. No one got in the water with Luna.
In this clip Luna is seen squirting people, and the camera, with a fire hose. It's terrific, and very emblematic of the film. Shouldn't this go viral on YouTube?
We suspect that it may. It's funny, and that seems to make people pass it on to their friends. So maybe that will happen. There are other clips of Luna, some shot by us, out on YouTube.
What does The Whale tell us about the social behavior of these intelligent animals?
That orcas are among the most social mammals on the planet and that they are remarkably flexible in their sociability. It tells us that they have complex social needs and are willing to take risks to have social connections, even with species not their own. The Whale shows the many ways Luna tried to make those connections, from making intense eye contact to letting humans rub his tongue, and shows how determined he was to overcome obstacles to make contact with other sentient beings. It shows that, like humans, orcas crave connections with other beings, and are willing to take risks to have that.
At one point we learn that Luna might have to go to a SeaWorld-style aquatic theme park. Would that have been best for him?
People who see the film sometimes ask us whether it would have been best for Luna to be taken captive and held for the rest of his life in a marine park, because he seemed to like contact with people. Our response is that your daughter may like talking on the phone, but that doesn't mean she should spend her life trapped in a phone booth. Luna only tried to make contact with people because there were no members of his family around. If he had been able to connect with them he probably would never have looked for people again. That would have been best for him. For orcas, captivity in concrete tanks is like solitary confinement for humans; it's torture.
Does The Whale have a message about keeping orcas in captivity, on one side or another?
The film does not take a position on this or any other facet of the politics of wildlife management. It was our intention to tell a story, not to tell people how to think. The film does, however, show the life of a free whale, which looks amazingly energetic and you could almost say enthusiastic compared to life in a concrete tank. From the beginning of our work with this wild orca, we knew that permanent captivity would be tragic for him, as it is for all orcas. For orcas, we personally think captivity is cruel, degrading, and inhumane, and can be dangerous for both the animals and their trainers.
How can people see your film and get more information?
The best way to get info about The Whale is to go to our website: http://www.thewhalemovie.com
You can also make a request for the film to come to your town, and sign up for a newsletter that gives news about the film. The Whale opens in Washington DC on October 14, with openings in other cities soon after.
David Kirby is currently completing his third book, "Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity," to be released by St. Martin's Press in Spring, 2012