Making Waves: Q&A with filmmakers of The Whale

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The documentary film The Whale has plot twists to rival any action feature. The film follows what happens when a baby orca named Luna, separated from his pod, makes contact with people along Canada’s Nootka Sound. Even the filmmakers— the husband-and-wife team of Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit on assignment from National Geographic—can’t escape being drawn into Luna’s story. Here, Chisholm and Parfit offer their observations on the project.

Q: Actor Ryan Reynolds, who narrates The Whale, is also a producer on the film. How did he become involved?

A: We sent a previous version of the film to Ryan. He watched it and loved it, and he agreed to narrate it. He grew up in Vancouver, not far from where Luna’s family comes from, and he remembers watching whales when he was young.

Q: How have responses to the film varied worldwide?

A: We’ve been fortunate to be able to show versions of The Whale all over the world—in China, Japan, the Middle East, Africa, Bermuda, Australia, throughout Europe. Everywhere it shows, people fall in love with Luna. There’s something universal about his story; the appeal of a whale trying to make friends with people seems to cut across age groups, cultures, and nations. We do find that the wow factor about orcas and the amazing scenery increases the farther the distance from the film’s British Columbia setting.

Q: What compelled you to step out of the role of objective journalists in telling this story?

A: Luna himself! As a journalist, you’re not supposed to cross that line and try to change the outcome of a story you’re covering. In Luna’s case, his situation was getting more and more dangerous, and we considered it unethical NOT to try to help. So we took a position, and argued for safe, controlled, scientifically designed interaction with him. Though we did take a stand, we’re very proud that the film has been seen by many different people with opposing viewpoints and all have told us that even if they don’t agree with our perspective, they feel we told the story honestly.

Q: Do you view Luna as unique? Can his experience be applied to other wildlife?

A: Luna’s situation was certainly very unusual. It’s almost unheard of for a baby orca to become separated from his family and to carve out a social life with humans. What’s most unusual is that Luna didn’t approach people for food— which is almost always the case with human-wildlife interactions—but he came to people for a social life. That’s incredibly rare. In almost all cases, we believe strongly that people should keep a distance from wild animals. But there are some rare cases, like Luna’s, in which careful, scientifically structured human intervention may be able to help.

Q: Why the analogy in the film to an encounter with extraterrestrial life?

A: We know very little about the oceans on our planet, and probably even less about the creatures who live in them. Our ability to communicate with an intelligent, social creature like an orca is almost nonexistent. Some scientists compare this to what it may be like if we ever meet an extraterrestrial.

Q: Do you see wider implications to this story, particularly with increasing contact between humans and wildlife as human populations encroach on animal habitats?

A: We all need to respect what the wild creatures we share the planet with need, and that includes protecting their habitat and food sources, and, in the vast majority of cases, leaving them alone to live their lives without human intervention. More and more, humans are coming into contact with wild animals: we build houses in their backyards, and we boat in their waters, so we need to be careful about the choices we make and how that impacts these animals. Luna’s case was very unusual, so although we can’t specifically apply his experience to other species, we should learn that we must respect what these wild creatures are asking for, whether in the very rare cases like Luna’s, in which he seemed to want social contact, or, much more often, for space apart from us where they can live in freedom.

Want to watch a trailer for the film? Stop by Here, you can also find out about upcoming screenings.