By Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm, co-directors of The Whale.
Luna was born into the Southern Resident community of orcas, which spends summers eating salmon in the Salish Sea, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean between Canada and the US. Orcas – also called killer whales – live in all the oceans in the world, but the Southern Residents are considered a distinct population. There are fewer than 90 of them, and they are endangered. Unlike some other orcas, which are known as Transients, the Resident orcas eat only fish.
In the Salish Sea area these orcas are so well-loved that baby orcas are usually nicknamed before scientists have been close enough to them to determine gender. When Luna was born there was a naming contest. The winner wrote that the little whale should be called Luna because orcas explore the sea the way the moon explores the Earth.
Orcas, also called killer whales, are actually both dolphins and whales. All whales and dolphins are in the biological order of cetacea, and dolphins are in the sub-order odontoceti, also known as “toothed whales.” The toothed whales include the sperm whale, belugas, narwhals, dolphins and porpoises.
Orcas who belong to the Southern Resident community never leave the family group. In fact, though they separate a bit to go fishing sometimes, basically they stay within the range of their underwater calls for life. But Luna was different. When he was less than two years old, he was somehow separated from his family, and wound up by himself in a fjord called Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, more than two hundred miles away from his family.
It’s a mystery. Since Southern Resident males almost always stay with their mother’s group for their whole lives, his separation was very unusual. And it’s not likely that his family kicked him out. Nobody thinks he chose to leave, particularly since orcas have about the same lifetimes as humans, and he was just two years old. There must have been some kind of mix-up, and he just got lost. The film describes it as being like a child getting lost in a grocery store. That’s a fanciful description, but it may have felt like that to Luna. Where are they? Where did they go? Silence.
A scientist in the film says he and his colleagues thought that Luna getting lost was like "laying a baby in the forest," and they didn’t think Luna could survive. But he managed to feed himself quite well. In fact, he got kind of tubby at times.
People sure tried to give him goodies. They threw him chocolate and oranges. Even vegetables. He spit out anything he couldn’t play with.
Fisherman would sometimes toss Luna dead fish from their fishing lines, and he’d carry them around, sticking out the side of his mouth like cigars. But he didn’t seem to eat them. He was wild, and he clearly preferred hunting for live fish. That’s what made his efforts to make contact with us so unusual. It wasn’t for food, so why did he do it? The only answer that seems to make sense is that without his family around he was, in some way different but perhaps in some way the same as us, lonely. Somehow maybe he thought we could be friends. And a lot of people thought the same thing.
No. Definitely not. Whales need space to travel, space to hunt for food, and space to care for their young. We don’t believe that humans should harass wildlife of any kind. The story of Luna is about friendship and respect between species, but that means contact can work only in very unusual cases. Almost always, respect for any wild animal means staying at a significant distance. With Luna we believe respect and friendship meant listening to what he seemed to be trying to say about needing contact. But in almost all other cases, friendship and respect for wild creatures means giving them the space they clearly want.
Sometimes humans can directly help wild animals, as happens when whales are tangled in nets or beached, and humans can cut them free or push them back to sea. But we strongly support guidelines developed by biologists to help people learn how far they should stay away from animals when they don’t specifically need our help. Their lives are complete, and usually they do better without us.
Anthropomorphism means the attribution of human characteristics directly to animals. The issue of anthropomorphism is vitally important in the whole world of biology and other disciplines involving the study of animals -- and in all our relationships with other species. The way scientists approach the complex ideas of what animal emotions and awareness actually are has been changing over the last thirty years, and the problem of anthropomorphism has become the subject of learned essays in major works. We can’t do that here, but this concern was critical to how we worked to tell Luna's story -- which was clearly about emotions -- of some kind.
A short answer to how to evaluate anthropomorphism was given by one of our scientific advisors, Dr. Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the world’s top researchers into the nature of the dolphin and whale brain:
"It is only anthropomorphism if you are falsely attributing a human characteristics to another animal," she said. "I think it's the difference between saying something is the same and saying something's on a par. Luna and other cetaceans really represent a significant challenge to us, because they are similar to us and different at the same time."
In the film we worked very hard to establish that distinction. You may note that the narration often refers to "this thing we call friendship." That may be a semantic gimmick, but we don't think so. We think it helps to make it clear that though we seemed to recognize what Luna was going through, we could not say that we knew exactly what it was.
Many scientists, particularly in the new discipline of cognitive ethology, pioneered by Dr. Donald Griffin in the 1970s and practiced by highly respected scientists like Dr. Marc Bekoff, tell us that given the similar structure of many animals' brains to ours, it would be almost impossible for them not to be feeling some emotions that may resemble ours.
Observations of behaviour repeatedly support that idea, and for us to learn about how animals think and behave, sometimes we can use careful comparison to our own experience. But with each other we recognize that sometimes the worst thing we can say is: "I know exactly how you’re feeling." In humans that can be an insult to another person's emotional complexity; in animals it's inevitably inaccurate. But we also know that with friends we can empathize and share emotions even when we don’t understand all our friends' experiences, and it is not wrong to get somewhere near that approach with animals.
So as we try to understand where they're coming from and how they react in fear or even in something like love, the cues we get from empathy may help us at least make small steps to approach the mysteries of their undoubtedly emotional lives.
And in the case of Luna, in which an individual animal seemed clearly determined to make as much contact as possible with human beings -- including frequent eye contact -- it was vital to come up with some way to describe the sense of emotional engagement he seemed to need. So we reached for a way, and described it as a search for "this thing we call friendship."
That's as close as we thought we should get, but it was as true as we could get to what we saw happening every day. As Ryan Reynolds says in the film, "No one knew how Luna felt this connection, but he seemed to feel something, and it was strong."
Yes to both. While The Whale was not written or edited specifically as a children's film, it is accessible and entertaining for children.
We were initially surprised at that. We had thought it would work mainly for teenagers and up. It took a child to teach us differently. At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where we showed the original film, Saving Luna, we met a father and six-year-old child on their way into the film. We thought the child was too young, but they went on in. To our surprise the six-year-old asked a question at the Q & A and seemed very engaged. But the stunning part was that when the film was shown at the festival again three days later, the same kid was back, bringing the rest of her family! We changed our minds.
Since then both films have been shown to many children from five and up, with great success. The original film was even used in an elementary school as part of a film-festival program, and a reporter who attended the class wrote an article about how successful the program was. We have stacks of drawings by young children made because of festival showings and special showings for schools.
"Your documentary," wrote one fifth-grade teacher, " has had one of the most positive impacts on my students in my forty-one years of teaching."
The family-oriented website www.parentalguide.com has described the film as "heartwarming," and "a 'must-see' for the entire family." "This movie" the reviewer wrote, "will spark family conversations about right and wrong that can be teachable moments that will last a lifetime."
We think that children particularly respond to the film because it has the emotional force of a real story rather than being lists of facts, and it does not provide answers to all the questions. Their curiosity is fed rather than ignored, and what they most want to do when the film is over is talk about Luna.
For those of you who know the film we made called Saving Luna, the short answer is that The Whale is significantly different -- we think in very good ways -- in terms of footage, narration, and thematic focus. For those who don't know what Saving Luna was, here is a brief history:
Back in early 2008, we entered a film we had made about Luna in British Columbia and narrated ourselves, called Saving Luna, in the star-studded Santa Barbara International Film Festival. To our joy and surprise it was accepted, but it was not exactly a prominent film in the competition. There were 214 other fine films in the festival, many with big stars like Ryan Reynolds, and huge budgets.
Rain poured during the nights the film was on, and we thought no one would come, but they did. Then, when the sun shone at the end of the festival, our little whale film had won the biggest award: Audience Choice.
That year the film began an extraordinary journey. It was invited to festivals all over the world. It won top audience awards at the huge Middle East Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, as well as in five other places. In other festivals it won Best Documentary, Best Environmental Film, Best Storyline. Twenty-five awards in all. England, Japan, Bermuda, Canada, China, Spain, Africa, Australia.
Everywhere, people were falling in love with the little orca nicknamed Luna, whose determination to make friends with humans disturbed the established order of things.
But like most independent films, the movie was still almost unknown in the United States. We were told the film needed a recognizable voice to bring it to those audiences.
Then, in 2009, Eric Desatnik, founder of the Environmental Film Festival at Yale, discovered the film. He showed it to superstars Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson. They loved it. All three joined our team as executive producers, and Ryan, who grew up in British Columbia near the place where Luna was born, became the film’s narrative voice. He is definitely recognizable.
Together they worked with us to produce a new film with added footage, streamlined narrative, and that strong new voice. They built on the power of the original movie's vision to create what we believe is a remarkable new theatrical film for all ages: The Whale. And now the doors to the theaters in the US, and we hope, the rest of the world, are swinging open to Luna.
This is not an advocacy movie. We made this film simply to tell Luna's amazing story. Like all narratives, the life story of Luna has many layers of meaning, and no one knows all of them. Humans have spent generations trying to figure out the meanings of even the most simple parables in the Bible, or the symbolic works of great authors, so we cannot imagine being able to tell you what the life story of one extraordinary whale fully means. We can only tell the story, not solve its intricate puzzle.
If we have told the story well, those layers will be there and the people who watch the film will learn something special for themselves. Like any wonderful story, this is about emotions as much as about facts or information, and emotions are always hard to capture in words. And this film is even more mysterious than most, because it tries to come to terms with the emotions of a whale, and how can we have any real idea what was going on, except just to describe what we saw?
This film has been described as "a complete emotional experience," and it does have an effect on people, but when you go through something that has that kind of an effect, do you understand it? Not completely. Yet you do learn something from it. So we offer the experience to you, to the audience, and we hope it's a sign of respect for the complexity of your own emotional response, that we do not try to tell you what it all means.
There is one thing we can say. Through this film maybe we can all recognize that this little whale we called Luna had emotions that were surely not like ours but may have resembled them. And that is a big thing to learn. So if our hearts are moved by Luna, maybe that's a start.