“10 years ago, I went,” says Babz Chula, talking from Montreal about the Vancouver Film Festival Closing Gala at the Vancouver Aquarium, where five Beluga whales are currently on display, “and I got it… It’s just gross, standing there, eating sushi, and watching intelligent creatures in jail.”
“People just fled, and I went, ‘Ugh, I’m outta here.'”
Chula is a well-known Vancouver film and stage actress, one of the stars of this year’s closing Gala film, “The Last Wedding.” It’s not surprising that this year the Aquarium Gala is not the closing but the opening, since last year, the key cast members and director Bruce Sweeney of “TLW” signed a letter complaining about the use of the Aquarium as a location for a Fest schmooze-orama. Such deft juggling of this PR hot potato seems to be the VIFF’s modus operandi.
At the 2000 VIFF, John Maté of Whale Friends, a Vancouver organization which works against the keeping of whales in captivity, stood in a cage outside the Aquarium for four days, and another two outside City Hall. He says the reaction of the partygoers was sympathetic.
“People would say they are embarrassed to go into the gala,” he said. “It’s a disgrace, it’s shameful.”
But the party is an important event in the Vancouver film scene, and the decision to abandon it or voice protest is a risky one for workers in a very fluid industry.
“Artists that need this yearly schmooze, go,” Chula says, “But lodge your complaint.”
“Whales in captivity is obviously a problematic thing,” says Alan Franey, the VIFF director, four days before the fest. “They belong in the wild. The spaces are too small.”
But, he says, it’s difficult to find a space for a party downtown that holds 1500 people.
“BC Place is out of the question, the Hotel Vancouver is too expensive because you have to use their bar,” he explains, for examples. In fact, the VIFF is in the process of building a new cinema to make up for the dearth of venues downtown.
Franey and fest chair Michael Francis met with Maté , Chula, and David Cadman, a green/NDP mayorial candidate, about the issue in the interim between this year and last.
“It’s about sharing the world with other intelligent beings,” Chula says.
“They just rolled their eyes up into their heads. I brought chocolate-covered Macadamia nuts in the shape of whales. They got nervous,” she says.
Leaving the meeting, the activists say they were left with the impression that the gala would not take place at the Aquarium again. The fest asked them not to issue a press release, since the decision would speak for itself.
“I feel betrayed,” says Chula. “It’s personal. I was passionate.”
In a letter to Maté , Francis wrote:
I take no issue with you holding the views that you hold. However, I don’t agree with them. On the contrary, we wish to work with the Aquarium to make Vancouver even better. In that regard we are participating in a beach cleanup program which will provide a great learning experience for young people.
The Film Festival’s official announcement about the decision mentions that there was consultation between the VIFF and the Suzuki Foundation. Though the Foundation took out an ad in a Whale Friends publication declaring that “the David Suzuki Foundation believes that whales and dolphins belong in the wild and not in the Vancouver Aquarium,” they don’t have a black & white stand towards the institution.
“Our general view is that we’re opposed to holding intelligent mammals in cages,” said David Hocking of the Foundation. But, he says, this doesn’t mean that any association with the Aquarium is an endorsement of their policies; he says the Foundation once considered putting an educational display in the Aquarium and after consideration, felt this didn’t mean an endorsement of captivity.
At the VIFF media launch, Franey made a passing announcement of the beach cleanup plan. The event is part of an ongoing series of cleanups around North America.
“Excuse me while I throw up,” says Chula of the cleanup. “How lovely that they’re cleaning up the beach. That’s ludicrous, who cares.” Maté has a similar reaction.
“It’s a good thing to do, it brings good PR,” he says. “It doesn’t address the moral or political issues.”
He cites as an example the lifespan of Orcas in captivity. In aquariums, they live around 25 years, he says, but in the wild females can live up to 80 years.
“It’s miseducation,” he says, referring also to the social aspect of whale life. “What do they really learn? Would you point to a person in a cage and say, ‘this is a human being?'”
“At best it’s inelegant and clumsy,” Chula says of the event. “At worst it’s barbaric.”
Franey, however, claims the Aquarium is a good thing to have in the community.
“I once saw a baby seal washed up on Spanish Banks,” he says, “I picked itup and carried it to UBC. They were going to cut it up. Instead, the Aquarium took it and saved it. It had been abandoned by its mother.”
A protest isn’t planned for this year’s fest since Maté is in Europe for a peace conference. The attack on the WTC, he felt, made such a small issue seem impossible to publicize. But he sent the following in an email to Franey:
Please do not take this as sign of lack of determination on our part to continue our campaign to end marine mammal captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium, or us acquiescing to the VIFF’s decision to again hold a gala in a venue that keeps intelligent social beings imprisoned.
Get more info from Whale Friends
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