The Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) of 2019 has several films with a message about the animals and our connection with them as compassionate beings. One of these films is The Whale and The Raven. It is a socioeconomic exploration of the connection between the environmental impact of tanker traffic, the whales, and the First Nations people who live peacefully with the whales.
The Whale and The Raven was made in collaboration between Mirjam Leuze, the National Film of Canada, and ZDF/Arte. Mirjam Leuze is a German documentarian and cultural anthropologist who had founded the film production company TOPOs Film to independently produce her earlier documentary called Flowers of Freedom. She is the director and screenwriter of The Whale and The Raven.
The Whale and The Raven is currently showing on Friday, October 4th at 9pm at SFU GoldCorp, as well as Sunday, October 6th at 4pm, also at SFU GoldCorp. Tickets may be purchased directly through the Vancouver International Film Festival site or in person at any VIFF Box Office. Please note, most films at the VIFF are unrated and may be restricted to ages 18+. Please call the VIFF box office if you need to check or if you have any concerns.
The Whale and The Raven is based in the traditional Tsimshian Territory of British Columbia, Canada, which is along the West Coast of Canada. We follow the processes of Cetacea Lab as they try to create a new research center on the waters, as well as interviews from members of the Gitga’at First Nations in British Columbia and others wanting to protect the whales and land. This includes Janie Wray, the co-founder of Cetacea Lab, lead researcher of BC Whales, and an avid whales advocate; Hermann Meuter, also a whale researcher in Cetacea Lab; several people from the Gitga’at First Nations such as Helen Clifton who is the matriarch of the Killerwhale Clan (Gispudwada Clan) and Gitga’at Councillors Marven Robinson and Cameron Hill; and from several others. Together, they provide commentary on the impact of the whales on their lives as well as the struggle trying to thrive while protecting the land, sea, and traditions.
In The Whale and The Raven, we see a new danger to the same Kitimat Fjord system that was previously selected to be used in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines in 2006. During the 10-year legal battle that was able to successfully block the use of tankers on this fjord, other companies noticed how they could exploit the Kitimat Fjord and began to make plans to export a different product called liquefied natural gas (LNG) through it.
The film highlights the difficulties as environmental activists who want to protect this fjord from heavy activity, to protect the land, the waters, the animals, and the people living in the area. Any ship, even just a freight ship, creates such an amount of noise that frightens wildlife from their territories and takes over their natural gathering spots where they socialize together. In the dark waters, our beloved killer whales, humpback whales, and other sea life would be susceptible to being undetected from the ship’s view and being injured by their movements across the fjord and connecting waters. We need to stand together to protect these creatures from interference of new LNG companies planning and setting up pathways to have ships move through these environments.
I found the singing of the whales recorded to be of such high quality and clarity that it was one of my favourite parts of The Whale and The Raven. Their communication to me, as a human, was heartfelt, and almost heartbreaking upon reflection of the difficulties they face as long-living citizens of their own society, one that is constantly encroached on by ours. The connection of the whale researchers and the Gitga’at people to the sea animals humbled my urban upbringing. I felt very grateful to be able to witness and acknowledge the expertise and awareness of all those interviewed in The Whale and The Raven. The film was forgiving and kind as it slowly eased me in as a viewer to understanding the plight of the whales and sea animals right here on the West Coast, as well as the Gitga’at First Nations people and their honest concerns in protecting the home land they share with them in our current world. The message of the film comes through a somber quote from Hermann Meuter:
Whales may have a conscious, social life that is ahead of us, and as humans, we don’t like to hear that because we still have this image in our head that we are on top there; everything else is an animal and has no rights whatsoever. Everything is dependent on our willing to protect it.– Hermann Meuter, in The Whale and The Raven
The Kitimat Fjord could not seem any more important once The Whale and The Raven explained how it’s not only an area for socialization, but feeding, playing, learning, and living, which connects the whales and other sea animals to different waters. Losing accessibility to basically their form of a highway would mean losing their lifetimes of natural and remembered routes to places for food, travel, and their own traditions. Similar to elephants, they rely on preservation of knowledge and culture through their communities thriving and working together. We cannot keep records for them, so we must protect their lives and capabilities to do so for themselves.
As a person of minority race myself, I connected deeply and sympathized with the Gitga’at First Nations people. It deeply disturbed me to hear about the government and industry pressures that affect their lives, particularly on how the handouts of food and rations were teaching youth to stray from their traditions of personally gathering food and preserving it, pulling them away from culture to capitalism. I greatly admire the dedication of the Gitk’a’ata in protecting and maintaining their lands and wildlife. This could be another tradition fallen one day if we do not bring enough awareness to ensure it continues. Environmentalists need to include the First Nations people when we talk about the degradation that the forests and waters they depend on and protect are infringed on by industries looking monetize off of them. In recent news, we fail to include the Indigenous people who actually live in the Amazon forest as part of the discussion on why we must protect the Amazon from further burning the best we can. These lands are their homes, and if your house was burning, you’d want someone to speak up for you and include you when they speak about the house burning down.
My greatest concern was that I felt that The Whale and The Raven requires a second watching in order to feel complete. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to watch the The Whale and The Raven again, but I don’t find it typical and reasonable to expect an audience to be able to watch the film a second time. I do feel, however, that reading about the film first before watching may actually improve the film’s impact with the first viewing. It is my hope that my words can help readers and viewers with connecting to The Whale and The Raven.
I also didn’t understand the importance of showing how the new research centre was being put together as to how it relates to the film’s message. We do get some brilliant thoughts from Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter during some of these shots, but I also felt there was more idle time that I would prefer in a documentary.
The Whale and The Raven takes on a similar documentary approach as another film I have watched recently, also on whales, called The Island and The Whales. Both films show the difficulty of connection that humans have with animals that they have never personally met before, the ones whom we see as food, clothing, or decorations. From far away, we struggle to realize and acknowledge their rights as individual beings and our impact on them with each choice in our day. We, blinded by the cloth of every day difficulties, and warped by media perceptions and views, can pull off that cloth and open our eyes with knowledge of a greater purpose and the greater impact that we are actually capable of. I believe that we need to see more films like The Whale and The Raven to deepen our understanding and connect not only with the animals, but with all people and the environment as well. Include more people in the discussion, and you will quickly realize how much we can learn just by truly listening and feeling with them. We must not attack each other on our downfalls and failings, but learn to forgive, accept, understand, and grow together into a complete society of compassionate beings aiming towards a sincerely better world, for all.
Lastly, please watch more films including Indigenous people such as The Whale and The Raven! These pockets of knowledge are far too often not included in the big name documentaries, popular journalism, online discussion, and internet culture. As generations of instant gratification, we need to reflect on ourselves through listening, watching, and acknowledging others. We should put ourselves in their shoes, just the same with humans as we should with the animals.