The Whale and the Raven
Dir. Mirjam Leuze
Recent documentary filmmaking, especially nature documentaries, has been plagued with redundant use of drone images. But when German filmmaker Miriam Leuze uses it to quietly observe a floating whale in the opening scene of her second feature The Whale and the Raven, it puts you into an introspective mood. Just like with any other nature sighting of impressive stature, attention is demanded. The mammal dives, with us in tow, into the story and the camera captures the full majestic scope of a humpback whale circled by its reverberating waterlines. The images of BC-based DoP Athan Merrick play with the rich textures of the ocean. And while he shows us fairy dust (or is it plastic?) trickling through the murkiness of disrupted waters, the soundtrack is provided by singing whales and a pod of orca.
The documentary runs freely like the waters of the narrow Douglas Channel. Fragmented stories of the people and the communities involved flow together like floating ribbons of bull kelp. We are welcomed by Chief Helen Clifton, ‘Granny’, and then guided through the unceded territory of the Gitga’at nation by two researchers adopted by local clans: Janie Wray by the Blackfish and Hermann Meuter by the Raven clan. Allies in the fight against the oil industry, they’ve aligned their project, data collection on marine life, to the objectives of the environmental monitoring program of the Gitga’at Guardians.
Today, ‘No to Enbridge’ signs still stand proudly on the window stills of Central BC homes. The joined forces of coastal communities, environmentalists and conservationists managed, through years of strenuous and expensive court cases, to overturn the oil pipeline project. The disruption caused by vessel transits was clearly established legally. But like nature, history and ammonites, the oppression of industrial power isn’t linear. It’s cyclical and LNG Canada is the reincarnation of an evil once vanquished, this time with the export of liquefied natural gas instead of oil.
Between Alaska and Klemtu, whales feed themselves by bubble netting. You won’t see the hunting method anywhere else – “this whole area is a bowl of whale food” says Jeanie. Her admiration for the phenomenal beings is at times overshadowed by the fear of the looming dangers that come with freighters and tankers. The ubiquity of the systemic oppression is emphasized by the presence of La’goot Spencer Greening, explaining the importance of decolonizing food and dietary habits. Rising up to disconnected decision-makers by returning to indigenous knowledge and Tsimshian culture, it’s a shared vision among the combative interlocutors.
Balancing between spiritual animism and political activism, The Whale and The Raven resolutely opts for a respectful approach of its subject matter without ever holding back aesthetically. It refuses to squeeze the story in a formatted narration. Halfway through the film, it makes space for an animated sequence of storyteller Roy Henry Vickers’ version of the story. And, not unlike Russian stacking dolls, the story within a story makes this film of collective commitment refreshingly unpretentious.
Update: The film opens in Vancouver at Vancity Theatre on Jan. 10. Whale researcher Janie Wray will be in attendance on for Q & As on Jan 10 and 11.