December 05, 2008
A documentary by Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit.
Rating: Four stars out of five
It's a story so entirely tragic and nauseatingly sad, that some viewers may look at Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit's movie about Luna -- the lone Orca who tried to befriend humans on B.C.'s Nootka Sound -- as an experience too depressing to relive.
After all, it's not like the three-year saga didn't get ample media coverage when it first unfolded as everyone from First Nations oral historians, to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to schoolchildren across the province found themselves snagged in the gill net of public opinion.
Whether you loved or hated the idea of an orca seeking human company, the story resonated across generational lines and tugged at something deeper, perhaps even primal, in the human psyche.
Because Parfit and Chisholm explore this psycho-spiritual element to the strange encounter, Saving Luna is more than a simple retelling of a very sad marine mammal tale. It's a thoughtful and often provocative exploration of humanity's larger relationship to the natural world.
It's also deeply personal.
Co-director and narrator Parfit tells us in the opening frames that he and his partner Chisholm intended to stay in Nootka Sound for a mere three weeks after they were asked to write a story about the little killer whale who refused to leave.
The veteran team, with several National Geographic projects under their belt, imagined they would be able to keep their professional distance and remain objective observers in the denouement.
Yet, after three years covering the story and moving into the community, Parfit and Chisholm crossed the line and became participants in the drama. They literally let Luna into their hearts and minds, as everyone around them picked sides.
Casual sailors were frightened by the orca's love of nudging boats. First Nations people saw the whale as the reincarnation of their ancestral chief. And fishers swore to put a bullet in the whale's blowhole when no one was looking.
As the tensions swirled, the federal government found itself unable to come up with a consistent plan. At one point, a DFO representative says the only humane thing to do is ignore the whale for his own good, but the policy was impossible to enforce.
Despite the apparent goodness of their intention to help the whale, DFO looked ill-prepared and wishy-washy -- and given the department's history of species culling (this is the same department that once mounted a giant knife to the prow of vessels to cut BC's now non-existent basking sharks in two), as well as the controversial idea of live marine mammal capture -- there's little doubt as to who comes off as the central villain in the piece.
DFO probably had the most power to help Luna, but red tape, egos, jurisdiction and a growing media circus prevented the creation of a comprehensive and workable policy.
Moreover, other specialists in cetacean behaviour were full of doubts about the establishment school of thought, and began to question previous assumptions about why some whales want to hang out with us landlubbing two-leggeds.
As Parfit and Chisholm watched the "tug-of-whale" unfold, their central focus was always Luna, and watching him pulled in one direction to the next pushed them into an emotional corner.
Their hearts were aching for the whale, and one day, when Luna came up to greet Parfit, he decided to break the law -- and his own code of journalistic objectivity -- and actually look into the eye of the orca. He even stretched his hand into the icy waters of Nootka Sound to stroke the creature.
When Parfit describes the moment on film, and tells us about the sensation of touching Luna's warm skin in the cold ocean, it sends a shiver down your spine because the connection between man and creature is suddenly undeniable.
Along with breathtaking cinematography, the filmmakers talk about the web of life, interconnectedness and the pitfalls of anthropomorphism. More than anything, they ask us to consider the "wall between humans and the natural world" in the hopes we may one day renegotiate the existing contract and see ourselves as an inherent piece of the puzzle, instead of removing ourselves intellectually from the world of "beasts."
From what this movie tells us, the animals have far more to teach us than we could possibly teach them. And little Luna, whose life came to a violent end after an encounter with a tug boat propeller, may have offered us the most valuable lesson of all by making us care about a life so different -- and yet so strangely similar – to our own.