Entertainment

Ryerson filmmakers return with Marineland movie

John Law

By John Law, Niagara Falls Review

The Walrus Whisperer is the latest  documentary by Mayday Pictures, the group of Ryserson University film students who released the controversial As Niagara Falls earlier this year. The new film follows former Marineland trainer Phil Demers and his relationship with the park's walrus Smooshi. PHOTO: Screengrab

The Walrus Whisperer is the latest documentary by Mayday Pictures, the group of Ryserson University film students who released the controversial As Niagara Falls earlier this year. The new film follows former Marineland trainer Phil Demers and his relationship with the park's walrus Smooshi. PHOTO: Screengrab

The same filmmakers who made a controversial documentary on the slums of Niagara Falls earlier this year are back with a new project on Marineland and one of its former trainers.

Mayday Pictures, comprised of second-year Ryerson University film students, released their sophomore effort on Tuesday, The Walrus Whisperer. The 14-minute movie focusses on Chippawa’s Phil Demers and his close relationship with Marineland walrus Smooshi while he worked at the park.

The relationship was severed in 2012 when Demers quit the park and was subsequently sued by Marineland for $1.5 million for, among other things, plotting to steal Smooshi. The case is still before the courts, as are eight other lawsuits Marineland has filed since 2012.

Among those is a $1 million suit filed last year against a 19-year-old California filmmaker for his documentary Black Water, about the park’s lone killer whale Kiska.

Walrus Whisperer director Adrian Pop knew the risks, but felt Demers’ story was worth telling.

“At the end of the day, if they do choose to pursue a lawsuit, we think it would make (Marineland) look very bad,” he says. “We’re hoping people realize that and have our backs. We’re trying to tell a story we believe is really important.”

Filmed earlier this year, the movie uses photos and video clips to show the blossoming friendship between Demers and Smooshi, which made national news and even got a mention from Jimmy Kimmel.

When Demers quit in 2012, he says he was told he could regularly visit Smooshi. But after he took his concerns about park conditions to the media, all contact ended.

He has been increasingly concerned for her welfare over the years, and says the new film “meticulously” tells their story.

“They captured what it was like for me to have to leave Smooshi the walrus, and face the backlash of speaking truth to Marineland’s power,” he says. “They did their homework and managed to draw from me lots of raw emotion.”

In a statement sent to The Review, Marineland says the film “isn’t news,” and is “personal promotional material for Phil Demers. A person who has simply failed to move on with his life and is recycling the past.”

The park says Demers quit after his pitch for a reality TV show called The Walrus Whisperer was rejected.

“Marineland believed then and still believes that Mr. Demers’ proposed reality TV show was not in the best interests of the animals and served only to advance Mr. Demers’ personal desire for fame and money.”

The park adds that the park was inspected by “every relevant agency in Ontario” after Demers made his concerns public, and “not a single charge was laid and all the investigations were closed.”

The park is currently before the courts for 11 charges of animal cruelty by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Pop says filming began for The Walrus Whisperer in January, before the commotion caused by its four-minute documentary As Niagara Falls. Released in March, it showed several deteriorating areas of the city, contrasted with the bustling tourist district.

It sparked an angry response from Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati and the president of Ryerson University, Mohamed Lachemi, who said the film did not represent the university. He asked the producers to remove the school’s logo from the end credits.

Pop says he and the other filmmakers never intended to represent the school, and hold no ill feelings.

“We talked to (Lachemi) and resolved that issue,” he says. “We didn’t feel at any time our freedom of speech was cut off in any way.”

Returning to Niagara Falls for Mayday’s second film, Pop says the project began as a “character profile” on Demers, then expanded as he brought his fight against marine mammal captivity to Ottawa in April.

“We wanted to have it out in time for (Marineland’s) opening day.”

The park opens for its 56th season Saturday. Pop says the film crew will attend a demonstration from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., gathering footage to possibly expand The Walrus Whisperer or do a follow-up feature.

The film can be seen on Vimeo and YouTube.

jlaw@postmedia.com

 

The Walrus Whisperer - Short Documentary from Mayday Pictures on Vimeo.