Opinions & Features Workshop (Oct 26th)

Photo courtesy CIFF

CIFF 2021: Last of the Right Whales

By Rachneet Randhawa, November 4 2021—

Last of the Right Whales is a Canadian documentary film that premiered at the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) 2021. It centres around the endangered Right Whale which are no longer dying of natural causes but rather man-made interferences like ships, or suffering lethal injuries from fishing gear, dying at a rate of 24 per year. 

The ultra HD and sheer 4K cinematography shed light on the migration patterns of the North Atlantic Right Whales from the calving grounds off the coast of Florida to the new feeding area in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The sudden onslaught of untimely deaths has started a movement as a group of disparate people band together — including a wildlife photographer, a marine biologist, a whale rescuer and a crab fisher — to bring about justice and unite in their cause to save the Right Whale. The Gauntlet sat down for an interview with Director Nadine Pequeneza to learn more. 

Pequeneza’s directorial debut was not a straightforward path  — she dabbled in a couple of roles including being a journalist before committing to a career in film and television, specifically focused on documentary filmmaking. Her first job post-college graduation was for a current affairs program called Face Off in which she found she had a limited role in expressing herself on a deeper level beyond the generic headlines in a media role. She instead wanted to have a cursory understanding of issues that are very complex, which documentaries are best for. After being allowed to co-direct under a mentorship she released her first documentary in 1988. 

There are two key qualities that a film director requires in the context of making a documentary — persistence and patience. 

“Especially documentary films, it’s that trust-building that trust takes time. And also, just patience, when you’re waiting for things to happen, these things aren’t scripted, you can’t command things to happen,” says Pequeneza. 

Surprisingly, the Canadian film industry provides a lot of government support to make films. Pequeneza elaborated that in a way documentaries are like a public service and filmmaking in general and are so important to a culture. 

“The social justice films that I worked on we’ve done impact campaigns with those as well. And it does really have an impact on society,” says Pequeneza. And one of the lawmakers that I worked with on a film about juveniles who get sentenced to life without parole in the United States, he always said, ‘law falls culture.’ And film is culture so you can have really important changes come about because of documentary films.”

What is the Right Whale? They are baleen whales and are filter feeders and great whales. A typical Right Whale is quite large and weighs around 60 to 70 tons and is up to 1,617 meters long. There are three different species of right whales including Southern Right Whales, North Pacific Right Whale and lastly the North Atlantic Right Whale. 

According to Pequeneza, there used to number over 10,000 and they occupied both the eastern and western side of the Atlantic Ocean especially along the European coasts and the United Kingdom. Unfortunately due to whaling, they were almost fished out of existence. By the time whaling was banned in the 1930s there were only about 100 left. It was until sometime in the 1980s that the Right Whales began to emerge again in North America in larger numbers and, as Pequeneza expressed, a rediscovery of this animal. Since then, there has been a concerted effort to keep them alive by scientists including tracking the whales through the North Atlantic Right Whale catalogue. which extensively surveys for both acoustic and photographs. Right Whales also have this nifty colossal pattern on their head which is unique to each individual and  also helps with this data collection.

As for the inspiration behind the film, Pequeneza indicated that she was constantly seeing headlines on a type of whale turning up dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This made her curious to probe more as nobody was saying why this was the case as no one had done a necropsies. 

The dark reality was twofold. For one, ship strikes and fishing gear were the major causes of death as whales were becoming entangled over many decades alongside other hazardous restrictions that made their situation worse — like fishing closures in certain zones, speed restrictions and shipping lanes which all had a substantial impact. And secondly, climate change has radically altered the migration patterns and the Right Whales have suddenly needed to change course, going further North in search of food. The way these whales find food is by plankton patches which are very dense concentrations of cocoa pods made up of tiny crustaceans about the size of a grain of rice. This is the sustenance needed for their survival however climate change is throwing their food chain out of order due to the incredible warming in some sports like the Gulf of Maine in which their food supply is being destroyed. 

As a result, the whales have to migrate further and further up North each year in search of food. Pequeneza mentioned that there was a sense of urgency in releasing the film as they lost many right whales in 2017 and 2019 and during filming, nearly 34 whales died which is technically 10 per cent of the entire population.    

When asked how this film compares to other popular documentaries like Seaspiracy Pequeneza mentioned that while many environmentalist flicks focus on a reactive approach, like boycotting tuna fish brands, she opts for one of being actionable and proactive and not to ban eating seafood outright. 

“So many people rely on seafood for their nutrition,” says Pequeneza. “There’s a lot of communities where that sustains them. And if they didn’t have the opportunity to fish, they would not eat. And so I think we have to look in a more holistic way about a reciprocal relationship with nature where we understand how much to take, we harvest in a conscientious way, we harvest in a way that leaves enough behind so that we don’t destroy the environment so that we maintain that balance. I really tried to explore solutions that were more generated by stakeholders. Fishermen have been fishing lobster and snow crab this way for hundreds of years.” 

For instance, she mentioned a trap line system they’ve been testing for the last few years that is made of stationary vertical lines and can be utilized in different environments, under different regulations, different traps and fisheries which was a tremendous accomplishment for fishing gear and whale safety. 

As for the most difficult aspects of filming, Pequeneza mentioned that it was the timing and uncertainty of the whales actually showing up. Due to COVID, it took them nearly two years to shoot the entire film but they were able to finish in a total of 45 days of filming due to long delays. But other obstacles required legwork like shooting these marine mammals under the sea of which only 360 are left and are critically endangered atop of having to track and pinpoint where they exactly are from Florida up the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Also, sea conditions can suddenly become disastrous and federal permits are required to get specific footage, since there are restrictions on access and how close you can get to them due to being a critically endangered species. Moreover, a lot of work goes into building genuine relationships with scientists who usually have closer access to the whales. The cast and crew had to accompany them in their work and use drones to capture the imagery required. 

 As for the story arc, Pequeneza purposefully chose to have a collaborative approach and a dialogue between different stakeholders who brought different perspectives, including a wildlife photographer, a fisherman, an oceanographer and a rescuer. This was crucial as she speaks of a comment in their last shoot in which they needed the fisherman to demonstrate for the scientists during crabbing season. This was difficult to film as the scene shows an entangled whale that becomes very distraught and is thrashing about. 

When working with professionals from industries you have to become aware of the sensitivities that arise. Pequeneza mentioned that scientists spend their life asking very big questions that are very particular on how those stories are conveyed to the public. This again comes back to trust-building with not just experts but local people in small communities who can give you the insider scoop.

 As the star leads, of course, the Right Whales are not merely passers-by that the audience gazes upon, but they are active participants within the plot. 

”The whales are characters in the film, they’re not just images you actually get to know individuals. So Snowcone and her calf – we follow that pair over the course of two years. And what happens to them is really exemplary of what’s happening to the species.”

Based on how Pequeneza originally envisioned the film, it turned out better than she expected. 

“I’m very proud of it. I think the footage because it was always a risk, whether we were going to be able to get footage and good footage of the whales, for all the reasons that I described earlier.” 

They were even able to capture exclusive moments of the whales like the “surface active group” which is a social activity that takes place at the surface of the water and involves several whales. 

“It’s a very beautiful thing to watch because it’s a mating activity, but it’s also a social activity. So there’s calves of all different demographics, so calves, moms, lots of males, and just the behaviour it’s very tactile — it’s almost like they’re hugging at times,” says Pequeneza.

One key takeaway Pequeneza hopes audiences will learn is that action can be taken even by getting educated on this topic.

“I hope they’ll recognize and remember that these deaths are preventable and that it’s within our power to protect this species. And ultimately, protecting them is about protecting their habitat, our oceans, which is our planet. So I want them to see how connected we are, how connected our well being is to their well being, and start to see our place in the ecosystem.”’

As for parting advice for youth and students looking to get more involved in documentary film making, Pequeneza advised to find a mentor and when taking a job, remembering that it’s not only to fulfill certain tasks but invest in people who are going to help you grow. 

The Last of the Right Whales had its world premiere at CIFF 2021 that ran from Sept. 22 to Oct. 2 and is a rising star environmental documentary to keep a lookout for. The impact campaign and its pledge to protect the Right Whale can be found online. Be sure to check out the film to learn more about this endangered species and how you too can raise awareness and advocate for more sustainable practices in the fishing industry.


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