The Walrus And The Whistleblower


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Smooshi and Phil Demers in The Walrus And The Whistleblower
"The film is at its best as a character study."

It's one thing to fight for a end to the keeping of marine mammals in amusement parks because it's something you're ethically opposed to. it's another to do it because one of those marine mammals is your friend.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower tells the story of Phil Demers and his parental feelings towards a walrus named Smooshi whose residence in Niagara Falls' Marineland gives him serious cause for concern. It's easy enough to understand his misgivings when we see footage of other animals there being mistreated or showing signs of serious ill health - footage that Marineland has not even tried to explain. Easy, too, to understand the bond between them from watching footage of them at play back when Phil worked as an animal trainer - the so-called 'walrus whisperer'. This much, however, could be communicated in a short. Nathalie Bibeau's feature length documentary fills most of the rest of its running time with reports of the various lawsuits going back and forth between Marineland, Phil and the animal rights protesters who campaigned outside its gates when he was still a believer.

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These legal moves are not without interest, neatly exemplifying the problems with a system in which the justice system favours those with enough money to financially exhaust their opponents, but the film is at its best as a character study. What is it that enables Phil to fight so long and so hard? Why do Marineland's legal threats affect him in a seemingly paradoxical way? And just what would he do with Smooshi if he managed to rescue her, anyway?

"There's nothing as natural as reuniting a baby with its mother," he says at one point, missing, at the very least, the fact that Smooshi will no longer a baby by this time, but a young adult with a different set of needs. Though he acknowledges that they're unlikely to find themselves in a convenient Arctic estuary, his commitment to saving her doesn't seem to involve any actual planning, and at times he seems more wedded to the idea than the reality - perhaps because that makes it easier to bear the fact that she's just half a kilometre away behind a wall, yet utterly unreachable. He repeatedly refers to her as his walrus, consciously or unconsciously asserting that the bonds of love ought to be privileged above all other things, though another participant in the film points out that his voice and those of his supporters might easily be drowned out by those of thousands of customers happy to pay to see Smooshi perform. There's that contradiction that often applies to love, in all its forms: he is the most deserving of her because he respects her autonomy, yet the language he uses is rooted in notions of possession and ownership.

That Smooshi, having been taken from her mother as an infant (we are advised in an aside that her mother was quite likely killed in the process) could not now survive in the wild goes without saying - at least, nobody goes to the trouble of explaining it for those who may be naive about such matters. The film is more detailed in other areas, however, and some viewers may find the stories of animal abuse acutely distressing. It's not until the end that viewers not directly familiar with Marineland get a real sense of the scale of its operations, and if you've found yourself empathising with Smooshi, the realisation of how many other animals may have been harmed will hit you hard.

Media reporting about animal rights activism makes it easy to imagine that everything is organised by people who, if not necessarily professional, at least have a firm grasp of what they're doing and have made a political decision to undertake such action. Presenting viewers with something very different, this film is a reminder of how most movements actually begin. There is no new philosophy here, no complex argument - just one mam's passion and determination, and everything that follows in its wake. Messy as it is, you'll be willing him to succeed.

Reviewed on: 24 Nov 2020
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The story of an animal trainer turned whistleblower and the walrus he loves.
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Director: Nathalie Bibeau

Writer: Nathalie Bibeau, Christina Clark

Starring: Phil Demers, Doug Draper, John Holer, Jimmy Kimmel, Peter Mansbridge, Elizabeth May, Joe Rogan

Year: 2020

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: Canada


DOC NYC 2020

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