Tuesday, March 05, 2013

True/False 2013, Day 3: Fish and Chips

When I was writing about last year's True/False, I mentioned that the films here tend to rhyme each other. Themes emerge from groupings of films. Among this year's key themes are matters of the relationship between the people and power, between human beings and animals, and the potential of art to speak truth to power. Multiple films run along these axes. The films I saw on day three all resonated with other films. Blackfish, for instance, would make a fine double feature with Leviathan or The Moo Man, while The Gatekeepers covers some of the same issues as Sleepless Nights. This sort of thing happens every year. I used to think that this was an intentional result of how the festival is curated, but it's not. When I was screening films, those same kinds of thematic echoes emerged from the slush pile. It just happens. It's the zeitgeist.

My day three opened with two films that to my eye seem distantly related, but maybe only because of their proximity to each other at the festival:

Blackfish (2013, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite) casts a gilmet eye at the business of killer whales at ocean parks, and the hazards this presents to the people who work with those whales. Seaworld comes in for the most withering criticism (perhaps on the advice of their lawyers, Seaworld's corporate point of view is not present in the film), but they aren't alone. The focus of Blackfish, the narrative hook, so to speak, is the death of Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer who was dragged into the water and savaged by a male killer whale named Tilikum. From that event, the filmmakers spin a tale of sorrow that goes back decades, beginning with the trapping of Tilikum by mercenary whale fishers, and two other deaths caused by his captivity. His first acts of violence against his captors happened at a Canadian ocean park in the 1990s, though his complicity in this was not determined in the inquest. Tilikum was subsequently sold to Seaworld. Tilikum isn't the only whale to turn on the trainers by any means. This narrative opens up a horrifying narrative in which the corporate keepers of these parks utterly disregard both the safety and comfort of the whales and the safety of the trainers themselves. The trainers are as much victims in this film as are the whales.

Looking at the notes I took at the show, they consist of four points:

  • Human beings are awful.
  • Whales are wild animals that really ought to be wild.
  • Capitalism ruins everything it touches.
  • Killer whales have huge cocks.

Human beings are awful because they persist in doing things they know are wrong and hurtful. The interview footage at the beginning of the movie with the whale hunters who captured Tilikum and took him away from his mother and pod as a baby is a portrait of human beings behaving badly when they KNOW they're behaving badly. The interviewees admit that they knew what they were doing was wrong, but they persisted even after they got kicked out of the waters of the Pacific northwest and took up residence in Iceland. Whales are wild animals even in captivity. In the wild, whales are indifferent or friendly to humans because they are healthy and happy where they are. Tilikum is distinguishable by his floppy dorsal fin, something that happens so rarely in the wild as to be statistically insignificant, but which is common in captive whales. Captive whales are thrown in with whales with whom they likely can't speak and are often kept in isolated tanks to prevent them from raking each other with their teeth. Are captive whales happy? The film argues that they are not. It further suggests that captive whales are a bundle of neuroses or outright psychotics. But capitalism trumps all this. Seaworld is not an environmental organization, they do not contribute to ecological preservation: they are in the business of spectacle, and whether the whales are treated well or not is a matter of cost benefit. The same is true of the trainers themselves. Training whales is a tremendously dangerous job, one to which ocean parks take a cavalier attitude. The Brancheau accident brings OSHA into the mix, who put the smackdown on trainers getting into the water with whales. Capitalism doesn't care about workers. It never has.

I'm frankly astonished at the access to damning footage Blackfish has. There's video of Dawn Brancheau's "accident", there's footage of harm that whales do to themselves. There's even an utterly gobsmacking sequence when one whale trainer keeps his head as he's dragged under by his whale and only narrowly escapes when someone outside the tank thinks to raise a net that he can get over. Even then, the whale kept coming. The archival footage is mixed with copious interviews with former trainers, OSHA officials, cetologists, whale hunters, witnesses, you name it. Seaworld and the other parks in the film do not come off well at all, especially in the absence of their own defense of what they do. The footage of their spokespeople in press conferences and court settings doesn't help them much.

The main question I was asking myself during the film was this: Why has Tilikum not been put down or released back into the wild. I think putting him down might be the more humane option, given that whales in the wild are not solitary. The answer, of course, is his financial value. Even taken out of the performance pool, Tilikum is still a fertile male who can be milked for his semen. The film show this process, and holy crap! Whales are hung like you wouldn't believe. I think I was blushing during this sequence, and I'm jaded.

I also couldn't help but think about Rust and Bone, in which Marion Cotillard's whale trainer has her legs bitten off by an orca. There was a comment thread on Roger Ebert's journal review of that movie and one commenter thought the film demonized killer whales. Having seen Blackfish, I think Rust and Bone was evenhanded. Maybe it could have gone further and placed the blame where it really belongs--on the practice of keeping whales in captivity--but that wasn't the point of that movie.

The Village at the End of the World (2012, directed by Sarah Gavron) involves whales, too, though only tangentially. This was one of the few "feel good" films of the festival, prompting festival director Paul Sturz to apologize for what he called all the "pillaging and murder and rape" in this year's selections. This is an antidote to that, though this is another film in which bad things happen to animals. The bad things happening to animals theme was downright traumatizing to me, so this was unwelcome, however truthful. There's a shot of a dog that has frozen to death in The Village At the End of the World, as well as the butchering of a narwhal and a polar bear. The film looks at life in an Inuit village in the remote north of Greenland, so some of this is inevitable. This is a meat-based culture, and the narwhal is caught in the dead of winter, when having that meat is of huge benefit to the village. At the Q&A after the movie, the director was asked what dried narwhal meat tastes like. She chose not to sample it.

The village of Niaqornat is kind of a canary in a coal mine. This is a place that is at the whims of both climate change and globalized capitalism. As we meet some of the 56 inhabitants of the village, they are dealing with the closure of the fish factory that had acted as their economic hub. The town is trying to buy the factory to run as a co-operative, but the owners are being obstinate. Meanwhile, life goes on. The man who empties the sewage goes about his rounds, the teacher at the small school instructs his students, the town's lead hunter continues to hunt game. The town's one teenager lives vicariously through Facebook when he's not clerking at the town's general store. The film has a seasonal structure, which provides it with chapter titles from the lingo of the village (spring is the time of ice, winter is the time of darkness). The rhythms of nature are seen most clearly in the cycle of ice on the sea. The sea still freezes here, but later in the year and for a shorter time. It disrupts the hunting. There are always icebergs offshore, though, even in the summer.

This is a subtly political movie. The central question of the film is whether such isolated pockets of humanity can survive in an increasingly connected world. There's a hint that the future of humanity lies in collective action. The corporate economy has abandoned Niaqornat, so they take it on themselves to resurrect their own agency by owning the factory themselves. A title card at the end of the film suggests that they have been particularly successful, spreading this business model to five other similarly distressed villages. But, really, the politics of environmentalism and economics is in the background here except when they directly impact what the people of Niaqornat are doing at any given time. Like all really good documentaries, this extrapolates big themes from a close observation of small details.

Gavron and her cinematographer, David Katznelson, are particularly fortunate in their choice of filming locales: Even at noon in the middle of summer, the angle of the sun creates a kind of perpetual magic hour. This persists in its way even during the long night of winter. It makes for a visually lush film even when it's filming the most mundane of things, but that's just gravy. This is mostly a portrait of people. In this, it's charming and humane. The inhabitants Niaqornat are generally funny, hopeful, uneasy at their lot, lonely, and even a little sad at the passing of the world they know. Our teen hero, Lars, has no prospects, so he leaves in the end, mostly to find girls. I can't blame him. But he's not the only one following his heart. Ilannguaq, the town's sanitation worker, came to Niaqornat to be with a woman he met on an online dating site. Such is the force of the personalities here that when a cruise ship drops anchor in their bay near the end of the film, the tourists seem like aliens.

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