Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Legal commercial whaling plan shelved at IWC: moratorium remains in effect

The world of marine conservation has been somewhat divided concerning the IWC's compromise proposal to allow a controlled return to commercial whaling, under consideration at this year's meetings in Agadir, Morocco.

The Whale Like Me team feels legalizing commercial whaling, regardless of promises that strict quotas would be enforced, is a very dangerous path to head down. How many other nations would have stepped up to join the whaling industry, upon seeing that Japan, Norway and Iceland were allowed to do so legally?

The proposal claims no new nation would be allowed to start whaling, but it is not so hard for countries to simply opt out of the IWC to pursue their own agendas when need be. Any assurances that legalized whaling won't psychologically legitimize whaling activity from new players... ring hollow.

How would we enforce quotas effectively when it has proven impossible to do so in other areas of marine resource management?

And the saddest question of all: how should we be expected to trust Japan’s fisheries to respect the quotas given the ample evidence of corrupt proceedings surrounding the treatment of the Tokyo 2, and the bribing of developing IWC member nations?

So in this respect, we feel this is a very positive development. In the words of Patrick Ramage, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Global Whale Campaign:

"Had it been done here, this deal would have lived in infamy. This was an intense three year effort but one conducted behind closed doors and focused on defining terms under which commercial whaling would continue rather than how it would end. The proposal it produced could not withstand public scrutiny and ignored the overwhelming global support for permanent protection for whales. Any future process of negotiation should not leave the views, expertise, and perspective of the global NGO community sitting outside."

Full article here.

It appears however that the IWC might simply postpone voting on a return to commercial whaling until next year, allowing the uproar surrounding the Japanese corruption scandals to diminish. So vigilance remains important. We will probably face the same danger just one year from now, and if we have forgotten the reasons why the proposal is flawed, our national delegates to the IWC will not necessarily remember it for us. We are their conscience.

The production of Whale Like Me retains the same goal as ever: to promote reconciliation with Japan through open exploration of our different ways of relating to cetaceans. The corruption problems unfairly taint an entire nation in the eyes of the world. Whale Like Me will show that they originate and are enabled by a small group of people. The Japanese people and the whalers themselves are not all to be held responsible for the policies of small factions within their government.

Likewise, despite the dismay the world is experiencing surrounding the exposed corruption, it is our conviction that the basic desire of anti-whaling nations is still to explore common ground and overcome the corruption together. Whale Like Me’s overall message of friendship between ‘opposing sides’ has become all the more urgent, if hope of such reconciliation and cooperation is to survive.

And of course, direct experience of cetaceans remains our focus: we believe nobody can hold a fully informed opinion on whaling without some experience of what it is like to meet cetaceans at close quarters, without any other agenda than the experience itself. Our exploration of the ramifications of such encounters remains the Rosetta's stone without which 'opposing sides' will eternally find understanding each other almost impossible.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Magic more often whispers than shouts

I am somewhere above the Pacific ocean again, hurtling towards New Zealand at a snail’s pace. Most passengers are sleeping but my sleeping patterns don’t know what to do with themselves anymore, so I am not surprised to be awake.

In May, I made 17 interstate and international trips in just 27 days, from Australia, to Europe, to the US, and on to New Zealand – meeting deadlines along the way, and sometimes receiving confirmation of journey segments just three or four days before booking tickets and making traveling. The trip to New Zealand involved selling a vehicle in Sydney, and shipping belongings: it is a move of sorts, although it certainly did not feel like one when I left for Japan only 2 days after arriving in New Zealand.

The final journey that will earn me some real rest is in one week: a spell back in Sydney.

They say the soul takes a while to catch up with one’s international travels, and it certainly feels that way – a whale might keep pace with its soul as it travels the oceans but I’ve quartered, sliced and diced mine and left it strewn across the planet to stumble, crawl and swim its way back towards unity.

This third time in Japan was in character with the land and culture: subtle. If I were tuned to only feeling the big splashes, I would feel nothing right now. But magic whispered regularly, like the frequent, almost imperceptible earth quakes that shake Tokyo.

Hideki and I have refined our process for the Japanese whaling family. We shot some footage geared solely towards a revision of the trailer, in order to present a more balanced impression of the film’s arc. And during sleepless nights, I wrestled with sequence breakdowns, playing with that jigsaw puzzle that is a feature film. From roughly 2am until 9am, the splintered pieces of the whole shifted around, always settling closer to their final resting place, sometimes revealing new pieces that were hidden just a moment before, but without which the film would be but a limping shadow of itself.

These new pieces did not leap out with a shout, full of a sense of their own importance. They just stepped out of the shadows without a word. They had always been there, lying dormant. Like Stephen King says, the story is a dinosaur fossil and the storyteller’s work is archeological work. Unearth as much of it as possible. Listen to its silent confessions. Allow it to exist again.

The bones don’t scream their presence. And we remove them one by one with gloved hands, precision hand tools and brushes, not with jackhammers. We reassemble them one by one in to the coherent picture of a behemoth kept hidden for millions of years. Until the final bone is in place, the whole will remain shrouded, even to me... I am not its maker, only its discoverer and curator.

There will be tales of action in the weeks to follow, particularly when principal photography gets underway in August - if our fundraising hits its mark - but this week was a nocturnal haze of magic whispers: whale bones telling of how to assemble them into a whole, in preparation of its owner’s resurrection, and immortal life in film.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Walk a mile in my shoes and I'll walk a mile in yours

I wake up to the sound of a foreign, very polite-sounding voice intoning from a megaphone. It is in motion, probably coming from a vehicle, and it repeats the same couple of sentences over and over again, with the loyal precision of a recording.

Where am I? I slip in and out of sleep.

Another megaphone voice goes slowly by – as it gets more distant, I can no longer hear individual words. Not that I could understand any individual words.

Now they are a soup receding into the soundscape, with only inflection remaining intelligible.

I’m in Japan. And now I am awake.

My Japanese improves a little with each new visit, but even though I may one day be able to hold a decent conversation, the meaning of those half-dreamt megaphone announcements will not be decipherable from that distant future. They will remain a mystery – a token of my alien status in this other world, and I like that. What were they saying? I’ll never know.

Muscles groan from the hardcore adventure of dragging luggage and camera gear for 2 hours on trains, up and down subway stairs and corridors, and through the streets of Tokyo - all this an overdone antidote to 11 hours sitting in a flying sardine can.

I climb down the narrow stairwell of Hideki’s house and there he is, just back from his last bit of work. He too has been insanely busy for the last few months: we are both glad to have the next few days together to focus on Whale Like Me.

Hideki lays his understanding of the best approach to connecting with the right whaling family. We rapidly agree that rather than taking our best shot at meeting families on this trip, with a very low chance of success – the time will be better spent shooting some of the challenge sequences.

Success in connecting with a good whaling family will hinge on cultivating alliances with figures the co-ops will respect and defer to. Those figures are the ones we must convince of the mutual benefits of the film, and their support will open the way.

The climate is particularly difficult for approaching the whaling co-ops without authoritative Japanese support. The spotlight on the dolphin massacres has pushed some fishing communities into defensive victimhood. Extreme right wing factions have rallied to take up a nationalistic response to foreign environmentalist finger pointing.

I believe the whale hunts must end, but I believe as strongly that giving a voice to the hunters alongside my own is the only decent way to engage with the problem. If I am strong in my belief, I must be willing to let it be directly, experientially challenged. If they are strong in theirs, they must be willing to do the same.

Chanting ‘Save the whales’ in one land, while others chant ‘Whaling is our right’ in another, in the end, is nothing more than a huge lack of constructive communication.

Whale Like Me will show us the outcome of both ‘sides’ walking a mile in each other’s shoes. Is true reconciliation ever possible without a healthy dose of that?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Of beginnings

Tomorrow I board a plane for Tokyo, Japan, on a difficult mission. To find the appropriate Japanese whaling family for Whale Like Me.

This is a good beginning – a good place to start a blog as far you are concerned, but we have been working on Whale Like Me for 4 years now, and in earnest, for 2. Some of the earlier events in this process will naturally find their way into this narrative, but for now focus with me on this one mission.

The mission is a difficult one: the Japanese whaling community is understandably wary of foreign media, as they feel they are invariably portrayed with a one-sided approach, casting them as the enemy.

The Japanese sense of honor and loyalty is constantly aggravated by a perceived lack of sensitivity in international coverage of the controversy surrounding their whaling activities. To them, we irrationally obsess over animals that could be sustainably hunted, and our obsession sometimes leads us to extremes that most Japanese people have been raised to find distasteful.

Until I get a chance to explain what Whale Like Me is about, this is how the Japanese Whalers will perceive me. Without the contacts cultivated over the past couple of years, and the assistance of Japanese friends, that chance - to show them how Whale Like Me benefits us both - would probably never even arise.

There are other hurdles. Working coastal whalers in Japan organize themselves into cooperatives, and one family accepting to participate in a foreign film runs the risk of earning the disapproval of the community. The drive to conform is strong in Japanese culture, making the prospect of such community disapproval especially difficult to endure. The proposal I have for these families will put them in an interesting position, and I have sympathy for the difficulties they will no doubt experience in making the right decision.

What is the right decision? Haha! – what answer do you expect from me? To participate in Whale Like Me, of course. Beyond the obvious self-interest in saying this, I truly believe this collaboration is in the interest of everyone involved.

Here’s why.

For reconciliation and a constructive outcome, the only way forwards is open communication. Both those in favor of and those opposed to whaling need to actually speak to each other without posturing, without propaganda, without devious politics - in a sincere effort to understand the true reasons behind the beliefs of the other ‘side’.

A lot can be said of the IWC, but it is certainly not the place to go to avoid posturing, propaganda and political manipulation.

With Whale Like Me, Hideki, Nan Hauser, myself and a Japanese Whaling family have a very special opportunity – one that the IWC representatives will never find in the plush conference venues they meet in every year. We have the opportunity to all come face to face with the realities that have created this stand off.

This experience will change us – in what ways, nobody knows for certain. What we can know is that we will understand each other better for it, and that is the only valid path to a constructive solution based upon truth.

The Japanese complain that all they get from foreign media is negative, biased coverage over whaling: how ironic and sad it would be if because of this fear, they turned down the one film with the ambition to create honest dialogue.

Honest dialogue will result in an improvement in international opinion of Japan and Japanese whalers because whalers are human beings, just like the rest of us. We can’t demonize them if we discover their humanity: their livelihood but also their loves, their fears, their day-to-day experiences.

The value of seeing a committed conservationist sharing meals and co-existing with whalers, remaining on respectful terms while exploring their differences, is very high at a time where confrontation levels are escalating.

We cannot change their culture from the outside. Nobody will force the Japanese to stop killing whales, or the Norwegians or Icelanders either, for that matter. What we can do is foster new awareness through shared experience, and this African-American descendant of slaves, born in Europe and resident of Oceania, has some perspectives to share with the whalers as well as some introductions to make with some whales.

We can also open ourselves to learning. I want to meet a whaling family, spend time with them and gain insight into the many facets of their reality rather than remain stuck with just the one image we, in the West, do not get beyond. And though I admit to a deep fear of it, I want to witness the hunt, the detonation of the grenade harpoon, and the death of a whale. Well - I really don't want to, but I must - it is necessary to this process of experience exchange, and I must want what is necessary for the process to take place - I am driving this and where my desire falters, so does the process.

The science is in to support what many of us who have met cetaceans already knew: they are sentient beings who deserve the status of person - witnessing the killing of one may well be the most difficult experience of my life - but how else can I really know what whaling and whalers are? So many of the Japanese hold their own stereotype of anti-whalers being immature, and unable to accept the cycle of life and death - the relationship of predator and prey. I must face this reality, confront my beliefs to the facts on the ground, and show that I can overcome my fear and allow my belief to evolve through direct experience. In what way it might evolve, nobody yet knows.