Award-winning Canadian doc The Walrus and the Whistleblower asks the difficult questions about our relationships with animals in captivity

Earlier this week, the documentary The Walrus and the Whistleblower took the top prize at the Hot Docs International Film Festival – forced online due to the pandemic. The intimate film that follows a former Marineland trainer-turned-activist and his ongoing saga to help pass a bill to end animals in captivity while trying to save a walrus from the Ontario theme park has resonated with viewers – earning the coveted Audience Award at North America’s largest documentary film festival.  We caught up with Montreal-based filmmaker Nathalie Bibeau to discuss the win and why The Walrus is wooing documentary audiences.

Q: What did winning the Audience Award at Hot Docs mean for the film and you?

A: Well, there’s a strange kind of exhilaration with it because it means a lot for the life of the film and the issue but the way it all happened was so understated. I was at home in my pyjamas with my daughter and the list went up online and it was my mother who called and said, “Look at the website!” and so I was refreshing and refreshing and I couldn’t believe (the film) was right up there. But now that it’s starting to sink in I realize there’s a real potential for the film to be seen internationally and possibly even be submitted to the Oscars — which is one of the biggest doors that opens with this kind of prize.

Q: Why do you think the film is resonating with audiences the way it is?

A: I think it’s the essence of two things: the human-animal bond that it explores and the complexities of that; a human-animal relationship that was possible because that animal was in captivity. And the transformation that the main character — Phil Demers — goes through in realizing that the emotional capability of this animal that allows that animal to have that relationship with him is the very reason why that animal should not be in captivity. I think that transformation in him is something that’s resonating with people.

Q: The film really does expose our relationship with animals. I couldn’t help but think that captive animals is actually a bigger moral issue than I considered previously. Do you agree?

A: I would absolutely. It’s something we’re only coming to realize in the last 10 years, I would say, in the mainstream. There have been activists who’ve been at this for the past 30-plus years, but I think most of us in the mainstream are only waking up to it now and looking behind the show. Even if an animal is well-treated to the best of the ability of the institution in question, should the animal be in a cage in this tiny, tiny environment without its herd or being fed a diet that it’s not accustomed to (and) being on medication in some cases? We are asking these big questions with our relationship with the planet right now — particularly when we look at COVID-19 — so our relationship with animals is front and centre.

(Photo courtesy Simon Wilson.)

As part of Hot Docs, The Walrus and The Whistleblower is available to screen online at streaming platform CBC Gem until June 24.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.