REVIEW: The Walrus and the Whistleblower [2020]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: NC-17 | Runtime: 88 minutes
    Release Date: August 28th, 2020 (Canada) / November 24th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Raven Banner Entertainment / Gravitas Ventures
    Director(s): Nathalie Bibeau
    Writer(s): Nathalie Bibeau

The excuses are gone.

Every activist has a breaking point. They need one to willingly fight for the issues they do since these types of battles only exist if the side doing damage is held as “the norm.” You don’t see groups of people picketing the ocean to advocate for more marine life captivity just like you don’t see pro-choice protestors going to random people’s houses to picket their newborn babies because they think we need more abortions. That’s why whistleblowers prove crucial to getting any sort of change for the better. Those on the inside of the problem are the only ones who truly know what’s happening. They’re the only ones able to bring truth to light above company line assurances and sanitized press releases. We fight for those who can’t.

I specifically use the abortion example above because I think many anti-choice people will use Phil Demers‘ fight to wrongly advance their agenda. Phil is a former trainer at Niagara Falls, Canada’s Marineland who was fine doing what he was asked to do because it was his job and it was the only way he was told doing that job was possible. So he drugged the animals. He trained them using food depravation. He held the park’s owner John Holer as a father figure. It wasn’t until the abuse became so egregious that the young walrus (Smooshi) that imprinted him to be its mother was getting chemical burns from highly chlorinated water no one was doing anything to rectify. That’s when he quit and went to the press.

He’s advocating for the voiceless—the same line anti-choice organizations use as far as unborn babies are concerned. But he’s also advocating for a tangible living soul being forced to kowtow to an oppressor by relinquishing its rights—similar to how pro-choice organizations fight against their oppressive, religiously insulated assailants who consciously disregard the rights of mothers who need abortions to preserve their own well-being. The moment Phil could no longer accept that “things happen” when so many of those “things” are actually callously and purposefully wrought for selfish gain at the detriment of another’s health became his awakening. Changes he believed were bare-minimum improvements for decency and empathy were instantly rejected in pursuit of profit. He saw an animal in need. They saw property serving its purpose.

While he did then get the ball rolling on a conscious Canadian-wide shift where it came to whales and dolphins being caged, however, it’s tough to truly see him as a major player in the continued struggle to pass legislation. And that’s why Nathalie Bibeau‘s The Walrus and the Whistleblower ultimately comes undone. The focus of the fight fractures. On one side are the advocacy groups taking over the day-to-day operations to shutdown establishments like Marineland and on the other is Phil Demers. Bibeau’s documentary does attempt to separate them by allowing its subject a platform to call himself an “asshole” and hypocrite, but it never actually reconciles what that means. Instead it hails him as a hero seeking justice despite him presenting himself as something entirely different.

Just look at how Holer is treated. The guy is a piece of work who began his career as a circus animal trainer in Slovenia before opening Marineland in the 1960s. Interviewees will astutely describe him as an egomaniacal narcissist and his actions during the course of Demers’ continuing court battle to get a trial date prove it. Despite the fact that Phil admits the only person more stubborn than Holer is himself, however, Bibeau never pursues that angle to reveal the line in the sand between these men is all that separates them. Demers feigns integrity by saying he “can’t be bought,” and yet the next scene shows him telling his lawyer that freeing Smooshi—the other animals be damned—is all he needs to “be bought.”

He goes on Joe Rogan‘s show twice. He pauses when it comes to settling with Marineland because one of their stipulations is relinquishing his Twitter account and thus the following this drama has afforded him. Suddenly the guy who would do anything for the animals is exposed as being almost as narcissistic as his nemesis. Add a cookout where Phil’s grilling steaks because he loves the taste of meat before Bibeau films an advocate admitting that image makes Phil a bit of a liability to the fight and it’s tough to deny he isn’t in this for himself. He is an ally. He did walk so many others could run. But if I go back to the abortion analogy: he’s not a woman fighting for her own rights.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower unfortunately never confronts this disparity. It can’t because it’s specifically about Phil Demers and not the movement he ignited. It’s therefore impossible to see him as a sympathetic character regardless of the good he accomplishes. It’s cute to present his story as one of love for an animal that considers him its mother, but that doesn’t negate the reality that his impact is almost as shallow as that framework. Kudos to using his platform to share other whistleblowers’ voices. Kudos to showing up to Congress and giving his side complete with first-hand knowledge. But where does his allegiance lie? With all the animals? Or just Smooshi? With eradicating animal cruelty around the world? Or growing a brand presenting itself as such?

I get the appeal of using Demers as an entry point into what’s going on, but highlighting him in lieu of the broader issue does the latter a disservice. To never force him to acknowledge his specific place in a war seeking much larger gains with a tough question proves a disservice to the audience. The result is a puff piece that allows Demers to grab the wheel and steer things wherever he chooses—relevant or not. We do still hear from others with better insight than his self-proclaimed “I’m not a scientist or a public speaker” shtick, but they become afterthoughts to snarky Tweets maintaining his relevancy. I do believe his heart started in the right place, but fame and notoriety inevitably went to his head.

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