By Christopher Campbell | Spout September 28, 2011 at 10:26AM
Two new documentaries, both already out in limited release and headed for expansions, are necessary for anyone keeping up with the nonfiction film trends of this year (read Daniel James Scott's piece from Documentary magazine on this zeitgeist). If you've seen or are interested in seeing "Project Nim," "Buck" and "One Lucky Elephant" (the last despite my scathing review), you have to add "The Whale" and "Jane's Journey" to your list or queue (do we still use that term now that Netflix is screwing it up?). Each is surprisingly essential to the discourse and surprisingly an engrossing entertainment.
The former, directed by relative unknowns Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit and executive produced by the very well known Ryan Reynolds (who also narrates) and his now-ex-wife Scarlett Johansson, is easily overlooked as a simple, cute little family-friendly doc about a lost killer whale who befriends locals in British Columbia. Something like a real-life "Free Willy" mixed with a modern Disney Nature movie, without the studio-financed production budget. It doesn't help that it's been released at the same time as the family drama "Dolphin Tale." As for "Jane's Journey," I ignored it for a while expecting it to be just a flattering yet dull portrait of Jane Goodall combined with advertisement for her many global conservationist, environmentalist and humanitarian efforts.
Neither film has a lot of buzz around it, no big festival attention or awards. As always, though, we shouldn't judge a doc by it's cover or its coverage.
First, let's look at "The Whale," a film that on one level does in fact work as a cute family-friendly doc about a lost killer whale who befriends the locals (and makes an impact on ex-locals, in the case of Reynolds, who right away tells us he's from the same place). Hollywood could snap up the rights and remake it quite easily with almost no alterations to the story structure. But that would probably defeat its primary purpose, which appears to be to de-dramatize, de-cutify and de-anthropomorphize wild and captive animals, as they relate particularly to humans.
The film begins with a comparison in which Luna, an orca separated from his pod as a baby and settled into Vancouver Island's Nootka Sound, is likened to an extraterrestrial. Early parallels between "The Whale" and "E.T." can be drawn, except there is no individual bond made between Luna and a single person, of any age (unless we count the phantom presence of the narrator). Instead it's a whole community that interacts with the animal, many of them unintentionally, as well as tourists getting a memorable experience by the whale initiating a playful meeting with them.
The film takes a course closer to that of recent docs like "Project Nim" and "One Lucky Elephant," in which an animal goes from being thought of as a family member to being sent away. The people around Nootka Sound can't get rid of Luna, though. The idea of putting him in an aquarium is rejected, as is attempting to reunite him with his pod, but it becomes very difficult for the locals to go about their maritime activities trying to ignore this enticing, attention-seeking orca. A great alternate title for the film comes from a joke my brother made about it based on the premise: "Beat It, Whale," because for much of the story that's what everyone's basically wanting to say to him. It all reminded me of the scene in "Harry and the Hendersons" where John Lithgow yells at the befriended bigfoot, beggin him to go away for his own good.
Debates ensue about whether it's best to treat Luna's condition with the cruel kindness of giving him the cold shoulder and practicing a literal "ditching" method or by giving in and reciprocating with communal acceptance and love. The nearby Native Americans who think Luna is a reincarnated member of their tribe would seem to prefer the latter, and that added element to the plot complicates our own consideration of what's the right procedure in dealing with a challenging case such as this.
Like some of the films focused on in Scott's Documentary article, "The Whale" is not meant to be an advocacy film. There is no website or organization to direct us to in the credits about how to save creatures like Luna. And while it's an emotional film, it doesn't sentimentalize the events too much further than what's sentimentalized within the real story itself. Even Reynolds' dramatically expository (and very prominent) voice-over tends to stick to facts over the sort of colorful fable-making done by narrators like Samuel L. Jackson in "African Cats," even when he's verbally pulling us into this place to virtually experience the story as it's being told.
The way the film superimposes its talking heads over continuous footage of Luna and the action of the story similarly keeps us in the narrative by avoiding complete interruptions, as interview material often can be. Yet the fact that there are talking heads at all is indication that this isn't just a wildlife film nor something to enter into with just our personal perspectives, which we'd otherwise project onto the story, and never think about other views on this problem of animal-human interaction. It's a film that furthers our discussion of such complex relationships and is at times an inverse version of Herzog's "Grizzly Man" while still continuing an important direction for animal documentaries begun with that film.
What "The Whale" doesn't do, but this is one of the things easily projected onto it, is make any correlation between its story of animal and human interaction and stories of human-to-human relationships (I don't think "Grizzly Man" did either). It's no "Buck" or "Project Nim" or "Jane's Journey" in that regard. "Jane's Journey," though, also hardly means to overlap animals and humans or their behaviors. Instead it basically tells us that we can't really do adequate animal rights activism unless we step up and work on human rights activism. It separates the two while linking them up.
Goodall, who began her famed career studying and then fighting for the conservation of chimpanzees, now travels the world about 300 days of the year lecturing on and initiating programs to educate people in first and third world areas alike, so that we save the environment so that we save ourselves so that we save the animals, and back again. As I noted in an earlier post recommending the doc, it's the most positively uplifting subject I've seen in a film since "The Interrupters," and of course it's really necessary for us to have well-made works like this that communicate hope and profile inspiring persons, yet aren't merely channels for that advocacy. As much as I am in awe of Goodall's work and admire her tremendously, I had as much appreciation for Richard Ladkani's gorgeous and grainy landscape cinematography, filmed at all corners of the earth.
Perhaps the best way to reach us anyway is to tell us about something without making it seem like we're being preached at or marketed towards. Both "The Whale" and "Jane's Journey," whether or not this complicates either's point, are enjoyable movies as simply that, movies. Both are real life documentary biopics of their subjects, and while they lack the forced dramatics of acted-out biopics they play out chronologically and have enough narrative trajectory to keep you interested through to the end of the plot. These films show and tell a story from which we may be inspired or encouraged to engage the issues more on-hand, or not, yet for the most part they function to present something rather than provoke, while at the same time being conversation starters.
"The Whale" is currently playing in limited release. It opens in L.A. this Friday and heads to DC next month. You can request it come near you on the film's website.
Recommended If You Like: "Project Nim"; "Grizzly Man"; whales
"Jane's Journey" is currently playing in limited release in L.A. and expands to other cities through November.
Recommended If You Like: "Project Nim"; "The Interrupters"; the world