The Walrus And The Whistleblower: Review. By Trent Neely.
We live in an age of social change and activism. People are constantly looking to see how our understanding of the world and those in it can grow and evolve. One movement that seems to have gained a lot of attraction and attention in recent years is that of freeing animals from captivity. There have been numerous articles written and documentaries made on the issue such as the 2013 documentary Blackfish.
Often these pieces seek to “pull back the curtain”on aquatic-based theme parks and show the audience the abusive and corrupt practices of some of these parks, as well as the legal and political powers that protect them, and the activists and others who seek to free the animals and hold these powers that be accountable. Nathalie Bibeau’s documentary The Whistleblower and The Walrus covers all of these facets but also focuses on a deeper issue. What happens to someone on the inside who decides to speak out?
Bibeau’s film primarily follows Phil Demers, a former trainer for the theme park MarineLand located in Niagara Falls. Phil started working as a trainer for the park in his early twenties despite having very little training and quickly formed bonds with many of the park’s animals. Specifically, a walrus named Smooshi who imprinted on Phil, meaning she viewed him as a parental figure. While enjoying his work for the park initially, Phil began to question the ethicacy of the park’s training methods, some of which he himself conducted and participated in.
These practices include withholding food and medicating the animals in order to improve their performance during shows. Finally, after an incident where the animals tanks became unsanitary and led to illness in some of the animals, and a lack of action from the higher-ups at MarineLand. Phil decided to quit and dedicate himself to freeing animals in captivity, particularly Smooshi due to their deep bond and his love for her.
The remainder of the film concentrates on Phil’s work as an activist, posting updates on animal deaths and MarineLand practices on Twitter, attending protests with others activists, giving lectures, and urging Canadian legislators to pass laws banning animal captivity, all the while combating lawsuits from Marineland. Here is where Bibeau’s approach differs from other filmmakers on the subject. Where other documentaries on similar subjects focus on educating and revealing to audiences the existence of the abuse and serve as an expose. Bibeau instead shifts the focus on what Phil’s fight means to him and costs him personally.
We see footage of him working multiple jobs while he talks to the filmmakers about the burden of debt brought on by lawsuits, we see and hear his exasperation when he converses with his lawyer about the reality of settlement as opposed to going to court and seeing judgement passed. We also hear about MarineLand’s efforts to lobby against any sort of legislative change and dissuade other former employees like Phil from speaking out using settlements, or simply the financial burden of never-ending litigation.
With regards to the filmmaking on display, Bibeau and her crew do a lot to immerse the audience into this world and this story. At the start of the film most of Phil’s interviews take place mostly against a grey backdrop, in a semi-formal staging. As the film continues, we see and hear from Phil in his home, at his work, as he converses with friends, politicians, and others about what he saw and participated in at MarineLand. Not only does this speak to Bibeau and the crew’s ability to make the subjects comfortable, but it allows the audience to more personally invest in Phil’s journey.
Bibeau, director of photography Christian Bielz and editor Vincent Guignard do an excellent job crafting montages of images with great audio. For instance at one point former training staff talk about an animal bleeding and thrashing while receiving an injection while footage of animals seemingly smiling while interacting with visitors at a park is played. The juxtaposition of image and audio really affords the testimony to have its full impact.
If you are looking for a documentary that not only talks about corruption and abuse, and the impact on victims, but those who seek to speak out, watch this film if given the chance.
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