Talent On Tap – Nathalie Bibeau – The Walrus and the Whistleblower

They say a dog is man’s best friend… but wait one second – have you ever considered a walrus? If you watch the film, The Walrus and the Whistleblower, you might want to reconsider that cliché. This film is about a very special relationship and an unbreakable bond that only a lawsuit could break up. 


Phil Demer’s and a walrus named Smooshi are the heart of this story and it will truly tug at your emotional strings, much like a country song. The story begins innocently enough with Phil working as a trainer at MarineLand in Niagara Falls, Ontario. On the surface, everything looks quite normal and the marine animals appear content… but Phil Demer and other employees at the facility tell quite a different story of animal abuse and neglect. Phil’s love/bond with Smooshi causes him to stand silent no more and become a whistleblower that grabs the nations attention. What follows is a high- profile lawsuit and a growing protest to save Smooshi along with orcas and belugas. 


This is Nathalie Bibeau’s first feature film that she’s directed and produced… and it’s making a huge splash at the festivals, including a win for the top Audience Choice Award at Hot Docs this year. Nathalie has worked as a producer for years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation honing her filmmaking skills on the popular docuseries, Africa on the Move: Modern Warriors and 8th Fire .     


I had the great honour of speaking with Nathalie about the entire experience and wild ride that this film has taken her on. We spoke over Zoom (which I’m still trying to master) from her home in Ontario. It went something like this…


“Is this your first social issue documentary that has garnered so much public attention?” 

“Yes, I would say that this is the first documentary that has gotten so much attention. Before that I had tackled other social issues in a documentary called, 8th Fire about Indigenous youth, where they were going and how the new generation was transforming Indigenous issues. In another series, ‘Africa on the Move’ that similarly looked at the movers and shakers in Africa that were trying to change things… but this is my first independent feature film on a controversial hot topic. All the attention we’ve gotten from it has been pretty amazing.”


“This film had won the Audience Choice Award at Hot Docs recently, was Phil Demers in attendance?”

“The entire festival was virtual because of Covid-19, so unfortunately all of the screenings were online and everyone had to voted virtually for their favourite film. The Walrus and the Whistleblower were the highest rated of all those films. Normally there would be and awards ceremony but due to Covid, I was notified directly by Hot Doc’s directly, that the film had won.”  


“How did you become interested in this story?”

“I had been watching the epic battle of Phil and Marine Land unfold in the public eye for many years from a distance. Phil (Nathalie’s brother’s long-time friend) and I hadn’t actually spoken in about 20 years. I had been watching this entire thing unfold like everybody else while developing a career as a filmmaker at CBC; it was actually the summer that I left CBC to make independent films that, by coincidence, Phil had left MarineLand and became the ‘whistleblower’. As I watched him go from ‘poster child for captivity’ to ‘poster child for anti-captivity’ I thought it would make a really great film. However, I didn’t do anything about it because it was already so prevalent in the media in a series of exposés that was reaching thousands of people around the world. It wasn’t until quite a few years later that the idea kept nagging at me. Since I’d never made a feature film of my own before, but the voices and questions in my head grew too loud for me to ignore, so eventually I gained the courage to pitch it.”


Nathalie follows up with “I’d been watching the story, and it was only when I saw Phil testify in the senate, fighting for a law against the captivity of whales and dolphins – that I realized that this kid from my home town, who lacked so much direction in his life… had somehow landed himself in the centre of a huge storm that was going to affect the entire industry. That’s when the light really went off for me and I knew I had to make this film.”      


“Are there any updates on how Smooshi is doing?”

“As of June, 2020 Smooshi, was alive. We had also learned, 4 days after the film had broadcast on CBC and Hot Docs… that Smooshi had given birth to her first calf. Walruses are very difficult to breed in captivity but Smooshie shocked the world… and we’re not entirely sure how she became pregnant. Currently we don’t know her status but there is speculation that she was sold to a German facility.  MarineLand has been completely silent on the topic since June of 2020.”        


“I found it rather hilarious, that at the end of the film a police officer visits Phil’s home to follow up on a tweet that he’d sent earlier – ‘Life is short, steal a walrus’. It seems like an impossible task, to be able to steal a walrus, no?”

“The interesting thing about that is, the lawsuit that MarineLand launched in 2012 makes the accusation that he was plotting to steal a walrus. The media and Phil have had some fun with that – because, as you asked earlier, how do you steal a walrus.” 


“How long did it take to follow this story before reaching a conclusion?”

“I started following Phil in the spring of 2018 and finished it in the spring of 2020. I also had to pull a lot of archival footage from other periods in history in order to piece it together.”


“Can that get quite costly, using archival footage in your film?”

“Yes, it can but we had a budget for the footage – as well, some individuals offered up archival footage for free. It really can get expensive though, especially when you licence footage from broadcasters; there’s a lot of footage in there from CBC.”         


“Where did you find the financing to make the film?”

“When CBC commissions films, they give you a license – which is a portion of your budget. The rest of the money can come from various government sources, when you make a documentary in Canada that is traditionally funded, so the bulk of our budget came from CBC and the Canada Media Fund.”


“Was it difficult to find enough interest in this story to get it commissioned?”

“No, that was the wonderful thing about this experience – it was commissioned in record time. I was also very fortunate with the financing right out of the gate; the first applications were successful and we were fully financed within a few months of being in production. We were very lucky but at the same time, I had been contemplating my vision for this story for a long time and had strong ideas on what I wanted to do, as well as having written a solid synopsis. I’m very grateful for this experience because its been such a positive one, having the financing go so smoothly.”  


“In this film, I noticed a lot of interest/coverage on Phil’s pot smoking. Was there a reason you chose to include that in the film?”

“So… one thing about making a character-driven film that is also a social issue film –  you have to ride a fine line between ‘how much of the character’ are you going to develop and ‘how much of the issue’ are you going to develop – and how will those two weave together? In the editing process, it’s quite a dance to find that balance. There’s quite an unusual mix in a documentary; often, it’s either a social justice film that’s focused on the topic and you don’t get into the lives of the people fighting the particular social issue… or it’s a quirky, intimate character-driven films that goes deep inside the lives of the individuals and doesn’t necessarily reflect the larger issue. This documentary aims to do both. I was trying to weave in the relevant personal traits with the broader issue. Although I wanted to show Phil’s frustration in being trapped inside of his own story, I also wanted to pull the veil on ‘what it might be like to be a whistleblower’. If you can imagine, what it must be like to tell your experiences to the public about the goings on inside the business where you worked, in an effort to invoke change and then being sued along with your girlfriend, friends, activists and media. Phil has had the resolve to stick with it all these years. It was important for me to show both, the courage and the cost of speaking out, and being so sure of yourself that you continue to fight… no matter what happens.”    


“It seems like there were some very artsy camera shots that are water related, do you have a background in art?

“No, I have a background in Russian history actually. I have a graduate degree in Soviet Intellectual History- and I’ve travelled extensively in working with the UN. The visual grammar came from years of working in film and learning on the job about documentaries and how to tell a story in a poetic way. I didn’t want to tell a typical journalist-style-story with predictable images, I wanted to elevate the story and turn it into a poem that would inspire people with the beauty of the images. I crafted the images with my incredible cinematographer, Christian Bielz. The images of Phil in the tub were inspired by the animals living conditions and Phil’s reality of feeling trapped. The water going down the drain was a metaphor for going down the rabbit hole, much like the poem from Alice in Wonderland – The Walrus and the Carpenter.” 


“Most documentaries try to have a neutral position on the story and present the argument/issue on both sides, which you did very well. In saying that, do you believe that someone has to be held accountable from MarineLand?”

“I believe all businesses should be held to a certain standard of accountability… and transparency. When you have living beings in your care, there is a particularly high need for accountability and transparency. I believe the industry of ‘animals in entertainment’ are going through a huge transformation.  The public has woken up to some of the concerns that activists have had and many in the mainstream are now beginning to question the value of zoos and aquariums, the value of keeping living beings contained for our enjoyment and education. I hope this film will help others to look at their own relationship with animals. I don’t believe that every zoo and aquarium mistreat their animals but I do have serious concerns about the animal’s experience and whether or not we can morally sustain that as a society.”


“Is Phil seeking any restitution for being accused of ingesting drugs that were meant for the MarineLand animals?”

“He is counter suing for defamation of character, referring to several comments that Marine Land has made about him. Both lawsuits are still working their way through the courts, so we’ll see how it ends.”   

“Where can this film be seen?”

“It’s being seen in multiple festivals internationally and it played in Vancouver on Friday, Sept. 14th at the Rio Theatre and we just screened it at the Niagara Drive-in last week. It’s doing an entire run across southern Ontario – we’re also hoping to bring it to Quebec as well and it will be available on VOD (video on demand) Nov. 24.”


“Do you foresee yourself taking on another social issue in the future?”

“I’ve been thinking about that lately because I’m currently finishing an edit on an episode of CBC’s, The Nature of Things about this same topic. In the next film I’ll be looking at the Vancouver Aquarium as well as MarineLand, to broaden out the discussion even further, on the moral and philosophical implications of captivity. I do have some seeds of ideas on topics that I’d like to explore after this is all done, but I’m still in the early stages of that.”      


“Do you see yourself branching out to scripted films in the future or are you comfortable making more documentary films?” 

“I definitely see myself making a narrative film. I have experience directing large crews in the docuseries, Back in Time for Dinner – which had a very large production crew, art department and extensive set. We were asking people to go back in time to the ‘40’s, ‘50’s and right up to the ‘90’s. It was so much fun to work on and it gave me a taste for what a narrative film would look like – with a set and costumes; it’s a different way to tell a story that’s now in my sights.”   


“Do you have distribution for the film?”

“Yes we do, the film is being distributed by Northern Banner Releasing in Canada and by Gravitas Adventures in the US. It will also be going theatrical in the US and across North America on Oct. 9, and VOD on Nov. 24.”


“What size of crew would you have used to film this?”

“I had a cinematographer, sometimes a camera assistant and a sound recordist. It was quite a small documentary crew.”


“There’s one question that’s been on my mind since watching this film. In the scene where Phil is BBQing a stack of delicious looking steaks, he only has two friends over; was he cooking those steaks for the crew as well?”

“I have to tell you that Phil is one of the best steak grillers ever, he really knows his steak (laughing). They ate a few steaks themselves, I can promise you that – but yes, that’s a little production secret (laughing), that the crew joined them for dinner. I also wanted the grill on the BBQ to look visually full – if it were just a few steaks it wouldn’t have the same visual impact.”

“What was Phil’s take on the film?”

“He cried when he watched it and was absolutely astounded by how beautiful it was and how well he thought it portrayed the story as a whole. He even told to me that I was able to expose things about him and his story that surprised him. Somehow, intuitively I was able to show the intimate side of a whistleblower and he felt like it couldn’t have been done better (paraphrasing). He was so happy with the way the film turned out. You’re always worried when you launch a film – how your subjects are going to respond to it. I was relieved to learn that he really loved the film.”      


“I’m surprised that MarineLand has still not dropped the lawsuit. What are they suing him for now?”

“I’m not sure what they want at this stage, honestly. I think they’d like him to be quiet… but I think at this point they realize that’s not going to happen. Initially, they were suing him for trespassing and for plotting to steal the walrus. They’re almost 8 years into the lawsuit and the entire thing seems to have lost its purpose. I don’t see what anyone can get out of it at this stage and I think it needs to end.”


“If the rumours are true and Smooshi has been sold to a German facility, does that give Phil any joy?”

“We cannot confirm if the rumours are true but Phil does want Smooshi to stay in North America. Germany is too far to travel for him to see her but I don’t think he has too much control over that unless MarineLand chooses to come to terms with him.”  


This is an extraordinary story that any animal lover should watch. I’ve never considered having a walrus as a pet but this film has made me realize how intelligent and adorable they are. Move over Rover, I call Smooshi over.

The Walrus and The Whistleblower will be playing once more at the Rio on September 20

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