The Walrus and the Whistleblower
Phil Demers, Smooshi
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… a visually stylistic documentary with a distinct tone and kinetic energy.
Phil Demers worked as animal trainer for over ten years at MarineLand, an iconic amusement park in Niagara Falls. For a long time, it seemed like his dream job. He loved working with marine mammals and felt that he’d found a second family among his colleagues there.
But everything changed for him after the park adopted ‘Smooshi’, a walrus calf from Russia. After her arrival, Smooshi “imprinted on” Demers, meaning that she came to see him as her ‘mother’ or protector. This was a critical moment for Smooshi and a seminal experience for Demers.
However, with parenthood comes a powerful sense of responsibility. And with this comes a scrutiny; a protectiveness; a softening of the heart and an opening of the eyes.
In due course, Demers became increasingly frustrated with the neglect, maltreatment and living conditions that the animals were suffering. He witnessed sedative drugs buried in food, chlorine burns, illnesses, undersized enclosures, starvation, and severe wounds inflicted during panic behaviour associated with some of MarineLand’s public shows.
Finally, Demers defected from Marineland in 2012, and what followed was a series of events that propelled him into the centre of growing public debate about animal safety and the ethicality of keeping and training aquatic animals in a facility like MarineLand.
Demers established his combative identity under the Twitter handle @WalrusWhisperer and his campaign reverberated across Canadian politics and contributed to the passing of a bill that banned whale and dolphin captivity in 2018.
The footage of Smooshi is absolutely arresting. The viewer immediately comes to realise that here is a truly sentient being. Young Smooshi is extremely vivacious, bursting with personality, and her eyes are giant communicators of curiosity and innocence. The remarkable bond between her and Demers is undeniable and beautiful to witness.
First-time feature filmmaker Nathalie Bibeau has produced a visually stylistic documentary with a distinct tone and kinetic energy. She blends staged footage (we’re not talking dramatizations) with interviews and archival footage but somehow maintains a powerful and consistent visual aesthetic and rhythm.
The film is essentially a character piece about a man who is, quite possibly – as we come to realise – a narcissist, but who clearly has the enduring resolve it takes to fight this kind of fight.