If somebody tells you they have a ‘whale of a tale’ for you, it means they have a really good tale to share. Whales have been part of our history as long as us humans were able to write about them. They’re one of the few living prehistoric ambassadors of the sea… that are disappearing at an alarming rate. If you live in British Columbia you are aware of the multiple whale pods/families in our own backyard and how woke we are to the impact of tanker traffic and the effect on their livelihood and future. If you want to help in their conservation and monitoring of their habitat/environment, please go to www.bcwhales.org to see how you can get involved. It might even inspire you to create a documentary on their plight to be respected and protected.
The feature documentary The Whale and the Raven, directed by Mirjam Leuze and co-produced by Cedar Island Films and the National Film Board shines an underwater camera, a drone operator and a few more incredibly talented land-based cinematographers on the humpback whale and the orcas. If the Gil Island ravens could talk, who would they reach out to and what would they say? Luckily for me, I was able to talk to both Mirjam Leuze in Germany through the magic of technology and Henrik Meyer, half of Cedar Island Films at his office in Burnaby.
‘I believe we need to tell stories that represent the human point of view as well as the non-human perspective’ is a quote from director Mirjam Leuze. She has a degree in Cultural Anthropology and is very strategic in her approach to her films. She draws the parallels between the families of non-humans and humans that co-habit the Kitimat fjords. ‘Gil Island is just off the northwest coast of British Columbia and the sound of waves lapping with the ravens cawing is punctuated by the haunting whale calls emanating from a network of loudspeakers. Drawn to the rich food sources and quiet waters, humpback whales, pods of orca, fin whales, and porpoises eat, play, and raise their young here’. Another observation from director Mirjam after inhabiting the island in a tent.
‘The story of a pair of whale researchers that takes place against the backdrop of a unique natural paradise amidst social, political and environmental conflict’ is how this film is described by Henrik Meyer on the Cedar Island Film website. Henrik Meyer has been involved with other forms of fictional film, story and commercial TV for over 25 years with another large production company, Studio Hamburg in Germany. After teaming up with Andrew Williamson of Off Island Films they combined their talents to form the now Cedar Island Films. This is Henrik’s first documentary but he tells me he is now hooked.
For maximum coverage of the film, The Whale and the Raven, I’ve combined both interviews.
HNM: “Was this your idea to make this film or were you approached?”
Henrik: “The director Mirjam Leuze came to me through the Canadian Embassy in Germany. She and her producer Busse & Halberschmidt reached out to the trade commissioner to ask if they knew of anyone in British Columbia that could help them with this. I met with Mirjam quite quickly because she was already in BC. She has a close connection with area because she had been to Kitimat and some of her family lives there. She actually helped to build the research station and it was her idea to make the film. After she reached out we decided to do it together and it’s a 50/50 co-production between our German partners and us (Cedar Island Films/National Film Board of Canada).”
HNM: “You have a degree in Cultural Anthropology. Can you tell me how that translates to your latest film, The Whale and the Raven?”
Mirjam: “As a cultural anthropologist I was trained in studying human cultures and had earned a degree before taking my knowledge and going into filmmaking. I was more interested in the relationship between humans and non-humans. I wouldn’t say that this film was specifically about whales; it’s more about humans and how they relate to the whales and how they perceive their surroundings, what kind of concepts they have. It’s more about this than it is about studying the whales.”
HNM: “Are tax credits as accessible in Germany as they are here?”
Henrik: “It’s a different system, there is some subsidies but it’s a selective process. It’s much more like Telefilm where you have to apply and a committee decides if you qualify. They had obtained funding from our provincial film agency, Filmstiftung Nordrhein Westfalen as well as funding from ZDF and ARTE, which are the German broadcasters. We went to the National Film Board to seek out a co-producer and luckily they liked the idea and the approach from Mirjam. We met with Shirley Vercruysse and my partner Andrew Williamson, Mirjam and I to pitch it to the NFB. It was Mirjam’s unique access to the protagonists, Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter (whale researchers) and that’s how the NFB was able to become a Canadian partner. It made it quite an organic co- production.”
HNM: “I understand you spent a lot of time as a child in Kitimat. When you were making the documentary, did it require multiple trips between Germany and BC?”
Mirjam: “It was multiple trips. The first trip was in 2002, when Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter set out to build an observation station on Gill Island. Hermann is my husband’s best friend and we travelled as a group from Germany to Kitimat to help build the house. It wasn’t my intention to make a film but when I was out there I had my first encounter with a humpback whale. It was a life-changing powerful moment that sparked the idea of the documentary. I began following the Enbridge discussions about crude oil coming from Alberta to the coast and up through the Kitimat fjord system with oil tankers. I was following the discussion very closely and that was the moment when I developed the idea to make a film. I went back to the area 3 times in 2016 and stayed for six-months. As a cultural anthropologist I’m trained to work in a profound way and I’m trying to understand the dynamics while establishing good relations with people helping on the film. We filmed in 2017 and I travelled there twice, which accumulated to a six-month stay.”
HNM: “Have you produced a marine documentary before?”
Henrik: “No, this was my first documentary. I had been producing fictional programs for 25 years. Feature films, TV Movies, co-productions and German productions. I immigrated to Canada 15 years ago and continued to produce here, many times with German partners. This was my first documentary, which is why I reached out to Andrew Williamson because I hadn’t done any unscripted/documentary and that’s how we became business partners. We merged our two companies, his was Off Island Media and mine was Red Cedar Films. We dropped one word out of each name to combine them into Cedar Island Films. It’s very BC and very specific northwest, it’s also the film that brought us together.”
HNM: “In this film, it looks like every time you go into your backyard the whales are there, but I know that wasn’t the case. How much patience did you need to accomplish that?”
Mirjam: “It depends on the time. August, September, October, there are days where humpbacks are literally in the backyard. It’s very busy this time of the year but of course there were days when there were no whales. We tried to reflect those tireless days and slow the pace of the film with shots of Janie and Hermann standing around waiting for the whales to return.”
HNM: “Did this documentary inspire you to make more?”
Henrik: “This was very inspiring and motivating to do more. I always wanted to make one and now we are in production on our third. It’s very rewarding. I was very interested in The Whale and the Raven because of the coast, the whales, the Indigenous community as well as protecting a species and other sentient beings. It had all of that, which made it very attractive.”
HNM: “What do you see as the biggest driving force behind the human versus whale conflict? Is it greed, is it evolution or is it plain ignorance?”
Mirjam: “It’s about different concepts of the world and different concepts of the ocean. The industries concept is that the ocean is a resource for transportation. It’s a different concept in comparison to the First Nations Communities who perceive the ocean as a source of food and it also happens to be where whales live. Every group has their own thinking and motives. With the rise in colonization and arrival of Europeans in Canada and other parts of the world, they bring along principals of extraction and making money out of resources. This differs from the concept of sustainable resource extraction. This is what I’ve experienced on the coast and through First Nations people. They demonstrate other ways to use our planet.”
HNM: “Were there any regions/areas you were not allowed to film or travel to out of fear of persecution or legal reasons?”
Henrik: “The first thing we did was to negotiate a protocol with the Gitga’at First Nation, they’re based in Hartley Bay. That protocol included an advisory committee from the Gitga’at, so we’d have to ask and sometimes only go with a guide.”
HNM: “It must get costly to bring a small crew along. Did you find yourself using the camera to capture footage?”
Mirjam: “I did have a camera with me and there were long stretches when I was alone or it was just me and a sound person, Brent Calkin. There were stretches where a camera crew would come in for durations at a time but I was able to contribute some camera footage along with the drone operator (Mike Dinsmore), underwater camera (Tavish Campbell) footage and the nature cinematographers (Athan Merrick and Simon Schneider).”
HNM: “Is this the first time you’ve incorporated underwater cameras?”
Henrik: “It was the first time for all of us and was very exciting. We found an underwater cinematographer, Tavish Campbell. He is very well known and based on the coast. He knew the area and the waters; we had to be careful to not get too close to the whales so we used a lot of drone footage also. Tavish captured the whale pods at the end of the film with the drone. The other drone shots were by Mike Dinsmore.”
HNM: “Since the film has been seen around the world, what has the audience reaction been like?”
Mirjam: “There’s been different reactions; a lot have been really touched, a lot of people told me they cried during the film and they feel very connected to whales. There were many people asking if the construction could be stopped but the hardest question for me came from a 14 yr. old girl called Greta. After watching the film, she came to me to ask ‘what can we do, what can I do?’ It was such a difficult question because she can’t save the whales in the Great Bear rain forest. The question for us all is, what can I do, what can we all do from our own home or location. What can we do to help the world stay alive?”
HNM: “When you signed onto the project, were you aware of the point of view of the film and how it would be used as a platform?”
Henrik: “Since it was done over a period of time there were developments over that time. We had developed the project together with Mirjam and the National Film Board, so we knew about her vision. In regards to LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas), that changed over the course. It was off the table for so long, nobody thought it would go through, then suddenly there’s the announcement that LNG Canada is going ahead with the 40 billion dollar investment. There were different phases of the environmental threat, as well as the relationship of Janie Wray and Hermann Meuter (marine biologists) because they had separated during the production of the film and we had to respond to that and respect it from a documentary observational perspective as it unfolded. I give kudos to Mirjam and her editor for creating an amazing story out of a vast mass of footage.”
HNM: “Were you able to speak with any of the LNG representatives regarding the 40 billion dollar project and the increased tanker traffic?”
Mirjam: “Unfortunately I was unable to. I’d spent over a year trying to establish contact and the only response I’d received from a representative was a friendly, ‘good luck’ but they weren’t willing to talk to me directly. It would have been interesting to hear their point of view as well.”
HNM: “I’m always so impressed with the editing of documentaries. There is so much footage to look at and assemble.”
Henrik: “There is also the marine environment, which consists of a lot of staring at the ocean and waiting for something to happen. There are also the three points of view to sift through and edit, so the post-production side was a long process. We are very pleased with the music, we had found a BC musician, Jesse Zubot and he was fantastic. Mirjam and Sandra were in a studio in Germany and collaborating on the music with Jesse here in BC on Skype. It made it very interesting and inspiring given their different points of view, we can all learn from each other.”
HNM: “What is your biggest hope for this film’s impact?”
Mirjam: “My biggest hope is that people’s attitudes will change with the concepts of how we perceive and how we act in this world. If we could start thinking of non-humans as partners and sentient beings that have feelings, have grief, happiness and like to play. If we could start to look at our world like this and this film could spark that thought in people, that would be my biggest hope.”
HNM: “What is it about a subject/cause that interests you enough to produce a film on it?”
Henrik: “We have a little slogan that goes, ‘content with purpose’. Of course that could be a wide range of purposes but we like to do meaningful documentaries and we’re also developing a doc series that we’re co-developing with a few German companies and broadcasters. For a young company Andrew and I both have decades of experience and started making documentaries partly because we didn’t want to branch out to quickly and broadly. We didn’t want to lose our focus but we can’t say no when it’s too interesting and too intriguing, so our plan is to do both fiction and documentaries.”
HNM: “What would you say is the most interesting thing you’ve discovered in making this documentary?”
Mirjam: “I’d say that the most interesting thing I’ve learned making this film was to think about and contemplate non-human cultures, such as the humpback culture, the orca culture and that they both learn from being taught by the mothers and the older ones. The idea of human culture living alongside other non-human cultures was the most interesting thing for me. The storyline is trying to tell the stories of the humpback culture, orca culture, whale culture in different ways inspired by the thought that seeing, knowing, representing and thinking might not be exclusively human affairs. The conclusion was, us humans should have more respect toward other non-human individuals we call animals.”
HNM: “Where has the film been screened?”
Henrik: “It started with its world premiere at the DOK.fest Munich and then went onto several other festivals in Germany. It had a theatrical release in early September of 2019 in Germany and appeared on over 40 screens, which was amazing and incredible exposure for a documentary. The North American premiere was at the Vancouver International Film Festival. We had sold out two screenings, an encore screening and we also won the Women in Film and TV Artistic Merit Award. From there the film was shown in Toronto, then Calgary. We screened it at Hartley Bay in Kitimat and Victoria; there will be more screenings in Kitimat and in Prince Rupert in 2020. In addition, the film will be returning to Vancity Theatre starting on Jan 10 – Jan 16th because it was so successful at VIFF.”
HNM: “Do you feel good about making this film or worse, knowing what the future brings in terms of increased traffic in the Kitimat fjords?”
Mirjam: “That’s a pretty tough question. It’s both… I feel enriched and blessed to have had the opportunity to spend so much time in such a spectacular place. I’ve had experiences I will never forget, such as sitting on a rock in Gil Island and feeling the vocalizations of humpbacks through the rock in my body. This is a memory I will remember on my deathbed. It’s a moment I will value forever; I feel very blessed having had that experience. Despite that experience, I’m struggling with depression because of what I’m seeing on the news about climate change and about the extinction of an estimated 1 million species, plants and animals within the coming decades. I find that really threatening and I became much more aware of it while filming. So, it’s both. I feel depressed but very enriched and I try to stay positive while spreading the message to the world that the planet belongs to us but it also belongs to other non-human beings.”
HNM: “Is it difficult for a film like this to gain traction and find its audience?”
Henrik: “I think the timing of the film is sadly good because so many people are concerned about the environment. When it was launched in Germany it had gotten a lot of media coverage in part because of a UN report that had come out shortly before about 1 million species becoming extinct. People also talk about whales in the context of climate change. With the experience of this film in Germany and Canada, there is an elevated interest in a world that you don’t see often. I think it’s also very inspiring and motivating to see people/activists like Janie and Hermann and Bunker (Gitga’at Guardian) doing something in terms of studying and helping the environment.”
HNM: “What would you consider the biggest reward in making this documentary?”
Mirjam: “I would say that the biggest reward was being able to spend so much time up on Gil Island. I slept in a tent and I really soaked up the sounds of the coast… the waves, the ravens, the blows of humpbacks during the night, the calls of orcas through the loudspeakers on the island. The second most rewarding experience was the theatrical release in Germany with 12 thousand viewers. We went on a theatrical release tour with Hermann Meuter and his partner Christa Meuter. It was very rewarding to be in full theatre halls and hearing the reaction of the audience.”
HNM: “Do you have a distributor for The Whale and the Raven?”
Henrik: “The National Film Board of Canada is the distributor in Canada and internationally with the exception of German-speaking territories. They will handle international sales and hopefully television sales. They are very international, I’ve met them in Berlin and France; they go to the documentary markets in the world to sell their films and that’s what they’re doing for us.”
HNM: “Given the current situation with tanker traffic in Kitimat affecting whales sonar, have you seen this issue in other parts of the world?”
Mirjam: “There is an oil tanker ban for crude oil on the coast but now it’s about super tankers transporting LNG. This type of tanker traffic is happening all over the world. In the straight between Great Britain and Europe there are so many tankers and it’s so noisy. For me, the Kitimat fjord system is a metaphor for one of the last remaining coastal zones in the world where there isn’t much tanker traffic, yet… but it is to come.”
Henrik adds, “Together with the science director of the Gitga’at Nation, we agreed to a filming protocol that recognized the Gitga’at Nation’s territories. This agreement included the creation of an advisory committee, as well as work opportunities for residents. In addition, we jointly negotiated the sharing of footage so that the Gitga’at could use it for their work and other commitments. One of the first of its kind in Canada, this protocol served us well through production and post-production.”
Mirjam: “Industry is not bad per se; it can mean jobs and opportunities for development and education. However, I believe a paradigm shift is profoundly necessary in order to better safeguard the natural world. The change from seeing humanity as the “pride of creation” to simply another form of existence within a continuum of living things could fundamentally alter our perception of the world and how we treat it.”
A very insightful interview with two amazing individuals somehow brought together by fate to create a beautiful and inspiring film that will hopefully turn a ripple into a wave of concern and action to prevent any further harm to the whales, the environment and relationships.
More details on The Whale and the Raven here.