There’s no getting around it: culture in the West today, and indeed in a lot of other places, is dominated by trends set by the United States. Whatever your feelings on the subject, it is the order of things.
Mind you, plenty of it’s good stuff. Still, it’s nice, once in a while, when you stumble across something made elsewhere, especially if it’s an elsewhere you’re from.
That’s why I like shows like the 90s vampire series Forever Knight, and more recently, Flashpoint. Because lots of movies are made in Toronto (look closely during the traffic shots in Blade Trinity; you’ll see a CityTV van whiz by) but those two had the distinction of being Canadian-made shows that freely admitted they were set in Toronto.
That kind of content is hard to find, if only because it’s hard to spot in the vast expanses of TV-land. Circumstance dropped a sample of Canadian production in my lap the other day when CTV showed the movie Luna: Spirit of the Whale.
This review is a bit problematic because the fact that I saw it was a complete fluke and I frankly don’t know how anybody reading this will be able to chase it down for themselves. In case you can find it, online or through your library, though, I wanted to draw attention to it.
The setting is Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Our hero is Mike, of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation. He’s returning home after leaving to kick his drinking problem and build a new life. Having achieved these things, he’s now returned for his father’s funeral. His father was hereditary chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht and his mother hopes he’ll take up the mantle in his turn. Mike, however, is uncomfortable with the idea.
However, he starts helping out around the community, including taking a delinquent youth under his wing. Things go really strange for him when, having organized the kids to clean, repair and take out two traditional canoes, they encounter a solitary Orca who seems extremely keen to spend time with them. Mowachaht/Muchalaht lore dictates that chiefs reincarnate as either wolves or whales.
The community at large sees this as a positive sign and it raises the spirits of the disaffected young man Mike has been informally mentoring. Unfortunately, the government, run ragged by the number of people going to interact with the whale, and the nuisance it’s causing the local fishing business, decides to relocate Luna, to use the whale’s given name. The First Nation will have none of it, and Mike is caught between worlds trying to find a solution.
Now, luckily I long ago deleted any detailed memory of Free Willy so I went in with a more or less clean slate. Still, for a movie made in 2007 there’s something intensely 90s about this movie. The personable wild animal, the reluctant hero with a troubled background, the sympathetic wildlife expert overshadowed by a thick-headed bureaucrat, plucky attempt to stand up to the Man in an emotional showdown. It also plays the old ‘based on a true story’ card, which is guaranteed to bring melodramatic angst and everyman David-on-Goliath conflict for the ride. It also glosses over the tragic fate of the real Luna by leaving things at a point where it can have a saccharine snatched-from-the-jaws-of-defeat happy ending.
So narratively it’s a bit cheesy. I will give it this, though, near as I can figure, it doesn’t paint the morality black-and-white.
On the one hand, the government man is doing what he thinks is right. He’s close-minded, merely humoring the First Nation in its insistence on having a say, and cares most about the bottom line and the political look of things. However, he follows the letter, if not the spirit of the law, and the people he brings in to handle things genuinely want to help Luna. Significantly, the inequities of the political system are demonstrated, but the movie shows restraint and realism by making him merely a stubborn politician without also making him, for example, an overt racist just to bash the point home.
On the other hand, the point of view of the First Nation side isn’t portrayed in a totally positive light. It’s common in tradition vs. progress type stories, especially where Native Americans are involved, to portray a kind of starry-eyed spirituality that is inherently superior and always right in the face of big, bad modernity. I gave Captain Planet and the Planeteers a lot of guff about this too, because it does First Nations a disservice as much as a negative portrayal. Mike’s traditionalist foil, Bill, believes firmly in Luna’s nature as a reincarnation of their chief and takes the opposite extreme to our government interloper, thinking of the whale is if it were a human being. If you’re going to anthropomorphize an animal, the highly intelligent Orca makes more sense than most, but doesn’t necessarily make it wise.
Mike, meanwhile, is middle-of-the-road. Bill anthropomorphizes to one extreme, and the government agent figures that the regulations contain all he needs to know about nature on the other. Mike takes the moderate view that nature ought to be left alone and Luna should be given as open-ended a chance as he can. He repeatedly tries to lead Luna out to sea to see what his nature compels him to do, giving him the choice. He comes to find the belief in Luna’s spiritual significance compelling, but doesn’t forget that this is a wild animal running by nature’s rules. He also bucked my expectations of the ‘returning home’ story in that his reluctance is bred from his own internal insecurities. His memories of his father are mostly positive, he loves his mother to bits and takes a genuine interest in the wellbeing of his childhood home.
The movie boasts plentiful Canadian talent: Mike is played by Adam Beach (also in Windtalkers and Cowboys and Aliens) and veteran actor Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves, Thunderheart) plays Bill. As a bonus it shares a producer in common with Flashpoint: Anne Marie la Traverse.
So, if you can get a hold of it, Luna: Spirit of the Whale is pretty good. The story’s a bit cheesy but thematically resonant. It tells a story of Canada’s First Nations without fetishizing the idea of native people and achieves a decent level of moral ambiguity. The special effects are bit behind the times (it is very easy to see when the whale has been digitally added to the shot) but has a great cast and landscape to make it up.
“They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains/the hottest blood of all.”
–Whales Weep Not! By D.H. Lawrence