Melbourne Documentary Film Festival: ‘The Walrus and the Whistleblower’
Nathalie Bibeau’s documentary The Walrus and the Whistleblower has had rave reviews and deserves all the praise it has received and then some. The Gate says the film is, “is the perfect (and gorgeously shot) marriage of a cracking legal drama and a vital social advocacy documentary”.
Bibeau’s film is also the top winner of the Hot Docs Audience Award. So, what is The Walrus and the Whistleblower about? It’s the stranger-than-fiction tale of a Marineland trainer turned whistleblower who sparks an online movement to end marine mammal captivity.
The documentary follows the story of Phil Demers, now known as @walruswhisperer to his thousands of followers on the internet – the guy who has taken on the iconic amusement park, Marineland.
Phil has appeared four times on the Joe Rogan show, has testified before the Canadian Senate, and is being sued for $1.5 million for plotting to steal Smooshi, the walrus. Phil and Smooshi had become an inseparable pair when she first arrived at Marineland as a baby, and together they became a viral sensation in the early days of social media. Now, he’s embroiled in a custody battle to #SaveSmooshi.
Nathalie Bibeau is a franco-ontarian, raised in the rust belt. Now she is based in Montréal, and is a director & producer of international award-winning productions. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her career and the making of The Walrus and the Whistleblower.
About the film
Tell us about The Walrus and the Whistleblower. How did you know you needed to tell Phil’s story?
I had been following the public debate on captivity for years from afar – particularly, the case of Marineland near my hometown – and I knew it was a movie in the making. But it wasn’t until I saw Phil, my childhood acquaintance, testify at the federal government advocating for a ban on captivity that I realized I was the one who needed to make it.
When we were growing up, he was a kid who didn’t seem to care about very much at all, and yet here he was in the belly of the nation’s capital delivering a fiery speech in defense of animal rights. The questions I had about how he got there – and how we all got there as a society, grew too loud for me to ignore any longer.
You and Phil go way back. Did you ever know about the abuse at Marineland before he raised his allegations?
Before Phil raised his allegations, I was only aware of what was whispered about in the local community. There were rumours that things may not be as they seem, but that was the extent of it. Since I had left my small town as a teenager and I hadn’t been in touch with Phil for several years, I learned about his allegations together with the rest of the world in 2012.
How much did you know about the animal abuse in the entertainment industry before directing The Walrus and the Whistleblower?
I had an instinctive wariness about animals in entertainment, but I had never done a film on the subject or been involved in the topic in any great capacity. While I had been feeling the paradigm shift around the issue for some time, I came to the story with fresh eyes and a keen desire to learn.
During production on The Walrus and the Whistleblower, you wore a lot of hats. What was that like?
It was intense! My life has virtually been taken over by this film for the past 2+ years. It was a story that was well in motion by the time I started shooting so we needed to hit the ground running. It was a delicate, complex story, with high stakes & moving parts, and a small team.
I realized early on that I needed to stay close to all aspects of the film, from creative to business, to keep refining the vision as the project evolved. And when the pandemic hit and I had to finish, launch and market the film with two children at home full-time, well, no words could possibly describe what that was like!
Why was this subject important enough for a documentary?
It had been brewing in the public eye, and inside of me, for years. The two main themes in the film – our relationship to animals and corporate accountability in a changing world – are central to our evolving consciousness and they are pointedly reflected in the story of Marineland vs. Phil. Simply, I knew the time had come.
Do you feel like The Walrus and the Whistleblower helped the conversation around animals in the entertainment and amusement park industry?
Having won the top Audience Award at the Hot Docs International Film Festival, I think it has sparked a new, unconventional kind of conversation on the topic. Phil is not your classic activist. And I didn’t conceive of this as an activist film, but rather as a nuanced exploration of the discomfort inherent in change on a mass scale.
I deliberately left space for the viewer to confront contradictions and to encourage a reflection on their own values. I hope any conversation on the film, and on the issue, can be predicated on empathy – for humans and animals alike.
Do you think the documentary helped the case for Phil to get Smooshi?
If anything, I think it made clear how serious he is about being reunited with her, and that should Marineland want to take part in facilitating that, the discussion would be welcomed. The strongest reaction to Phil’s story from the audience so far has been:
I want Phil to see Smooshi again.
We can all relate to the quixotic longing he feels.
The irony for us, of course, is that this human-animal relationship we’ve fallen in love with was only made possible because of captivity, and yet it is through that relationship that Phil came to believe it should never have been made possible in the first place.
Tell us about your filmmaking journey. What did you do before becoming a filmmaker?
Before I was a filmmaker, I was on the path to becoming a diplomat. I did a master’s degree in Soviet intellectual history, followed by an internship with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Lithuania.
But I was an impatient 21-year-old who wanted to save the world, and it felt too bureaucratic for me at the time. So, I moved to Ireland, worked as a bartender, spent a year with musicians and cigarettes, and learned how to pull a great pint.
Eventually I came home to search my soul. I had always written stories as a little girl, but as the daughter of teachers who had sensible careers, I never imagined I could make a living telling stories. When I found out they were looking for an assistant to the executive producer in the documentary production unit of the public broadcaster, I applied for the job, walked into the room to meet Mark Starowicz – the legend of a producer who would become my mentor – and the rest is history.
What one movie inspired you to make movies?
This might come out of left field, but it was Into the Wild by Sean Penn. The film had distilled a complex narrative to its most urgent, emotional essence which carried me for hours afterward as I walked around in a daze. And I thought there was no better way to spend a life than to make people feel anything as strongly as that.
Why did you become a documentary filmmaker?
I was inspired by my first mentor to think of documentary film as a public service. The notion that I could contribute to important conversations, while travelling the world, listening to people, absorbing their life experiences into my own, and then bringing it all to life on the screen just felt too good to be true.
What makes documentaries important?
So many of our actions depend on how we interpret the world around us. The role of documentaries is to participate in the push and pull of the human experience. At its best, the art form synthesizes complex topics and encourages us to reflect on who and how we are.
It is uniquely designed to witness and stretch the boundaries of our perspectives, and to inspire us to grow into more conscious beings on the planet. And as such, it is a principal actor in the most important story of all.
Why is it important for documentary filmmakers to tackle such big social issues?
Because if we don’t, who will?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Making films – both non-fiction and fiction – and high-profile documentary series. Coloring. Travelling. And cooking, always cooking, with a glass of wine.
What’s your dream documentary subject?
My children, Julien and Cléa, starting at birth. If only I could capture the magic and wonder of the world through their eyes, frame-by-frame.
What’s next on the docket for you?
I’m finishing a companion film to The Walrus and the Whistleblower, which is an episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Nature of Things”. It is a film I am narrating about my journey chronicling the evolution of public opinion on captivity and the complex human desire to hold onto and “own” what we love, at any cost.
If one director could take on the story of your life, who would you choose and why?
Sofia Coppola, for her piercing vision imbued with sensuality and care.