Film Reviews

Hot Docs Review: ‘The Walrus and the Whistleblower’

A contemporary tale of David, Goliath, and Smooshi

Phil Demers with Smooshi
Photo: Toronto Star


The Walrus and the Whistleblower
(Canada, 89 min.)
Dir. Nathalie Bibeau
Program: Canadian Spectrum

“Everyone loooooves Marineland!” The cheesy jingle for Niagara Falls waterpark Marineland is as reliable a staple of Canadian television as are Heritage Minutes. Unlike the legacy of the Underground Railroad, the Halifax explosion, or the link between burnt toast and seizures, Marineland won’t be fêted in Heritage Minutes. The dirty waters of Marineland receive an eye-opening exposé in Nathalie Bibeau’s The Walrus and the Whistleblower, a compelling character-driven story of a committed activist. The film is a contemporary David and Goliath tale as former Marineland trainer turned whistleblower Phil Demers confronts the tourist attraction’s history of animal mistreatment. Anyone who still loves Marineland after seeing this doc will be turning a blind eye to animal cruelty and alleged corporate malfeasance.

Although many details of the doc are on the public record thanks to previous media coverage and Demers’ status as a social media star, Bibeau’s film is an engaging portrait of the personal sacrifices an individual can make in pursuit of truth and justice. The Walrus and the Whistleblower chronicles Demers’ battle to enact tangible change after alleging bad behaviour on Marineland’s part. Through the lens of disillusioned idealism, Demers reveals how he quickly came to see the truth behind the escapist veneer of Marineland and his dream job. He harnesses social media to amplify his voice, inviting Canadians to see the reality behind the comfortable escapism they enjoy each time they attend a show or bob their head to the annoying commercial.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower is also a tender love story at heart. Demers, who has a natural relationship with the camera, shares his passion for the walrus with whom he was entrusted while earning a measly hourly wage of $6.85. His heart belongs to Smooshi, who arrived when she was just a baby and became a star attraction as the first walrus in a park known mostly for orcas and belugas. Ample archival footage from Demers’ Marineland days speaks to the uniqueness of their relationship. Smooshi demonstrates genuine affection for her caregiver. On one hand, this bond conveys Demers’ sincere love for the animals. On another, it alludes to conditions at a park in which animals were starved for affection.

Demers’ testimony about the conditions at Marineland appears twofold. His new interviews with Bibeau offer sharp, candid, and cutting remarks about the acts of negligence and cruelty he allegedly witnessed. Similarly, the film supports Demers’ allegations with some extraordinary footage taken inside Marineland’s facilities, which lets audiences see the same chemical burns that the whistleblower says he witnessed on the animals, as well as the deteriorating health of animals that Marineland insisted were perfectly healthy. The images are disturbing, both for the despair one sees in the animals’ eyes and for the obvious institutional complacency they inspired when people in power opted to do nothing.

While Demers’ fight to end marine mammal captivity provides a hook for conscientious audiences, Bibeau’s film finds great drama while chronicling the exhausting personal hurdles her subject experiences while trying to inspire tangible change. If there’s a fault to be had with the film, it’s that the environmentalist fable is somewhat overwhelmed by the juicy drama unfolding as Marineland combats its appearance as a mafia-like entity desperately trying to regain control of a PR campaign that’s thrown its squeaky clean image off the rails. Alternatively, one can find an equally relevant essay about corporate accountability.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower cuts back and forth between Demers’ fight to save Smooshi and his legal battles with Marineland. The theme park, already notorious for its litigious behaviour, slaps lawsuits against anyone who speaks out. Demers’ outspoken activism and social media presence inspires Marineland to press a $1.5 million suit alleging that he aims to steal Smooshi. It’s ridiculous, both for its impracticality and for its reflection of Marineland’s character.

The film portrays Marineland as the “wild west” of theme parks. Its late founder, John Holer, ran the attraction with an old-school mentality reared from his days in Eastern European circuses, and the perspective that animals are merely pets or property is evident throughout the footage captured from Marineland whether it is covert or part of the company’s EPK. Behind the children’s laughter lies a bully. Rather than adapt to changing attitudes towards animal rights and species hierarchies, Marineland clings to its anachronist entertainment model. The film gains an additional level of urgency as Demers’ fight reaches the Senate, which does not seem immune from Marineland’s influence. Confronting both the public and private sectors, Demers finds himself face to face with powerful people who prefer to exert more effort to enable bad behaviour than to inspire change.

Bibeau’s film finds a unique dynamic in the characters who embody this David and Goliath tale. Demers does not appear as a saint. He acknowledges his hypocrisy as a carnivorous animal activist, explaining the conflicts that arise when fellow activists learn that he isn’t vegan. He even grills a BBQ full of steaks while discussing the matter, illustrating that the human-animals hierarchy is ingrained throughout western life.

Demers also takes pride in his antagonistic behaviour towards Marineland in the press, on the streets, and on social media. “I would like to think it’s good versus evil,” he says, “but I know it’s asshole versus asshole.” (This quote even receives a full page in the film’s press kit to illustrate its effect as Demers’ mantra.) However, on a scale of assholedom, there’s a difference between an individual with no platform or resources and a corporate entity with deep pockets. Whether one considers Demers a hero or an asshole is beside the point when his fight is in service of those who suffer. As a portrait of a heroic asshole, though, the film is thrilling stuff.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower screens at Hot Docs and DOXA’s online film festivals.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.