Nick Hawkins on a Canadian East Coast beach with a dead North Atlantic right whale. A scene from Last of the Right Whales.

Interview: Last of the Right Whales Director Nadine Pequeneza

“I always want my films to make a difference in the world whether it’s raising public awareness or causing substantive change in regulation, legislation, or people’s behaviour to make the world a better place,” director, writer, and producer Nadine Pequeneza tells That Shelf.

Perhaps it is idealism at its finest, but she speaks from experience: “Having done this for 20 years, I know what can happen. I’ve seen what can happen.”

This past summer Kenneth Young was released from a U.S. prison following a campaign bolstered by Pequeneza’s film 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story. With the help of the film’s reach and Pequeneza’s work with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, 23 states and the District of Columbia have banned sentencing juveniles to life without parole. And in turn, Young has been given a second lease on life.

In her next film, Last of the Right Whales, Pequeneza looks to make a similar impact albeit in a very different context.

Right whales have existed on Earth for nearly 12 million years and North Atlantic right whales, one of three existing species, have managed to come back from near extinction twice before. Following the lives and communities of the North Atlantic right whales, the documentary explores why these majestic creatures are once again facing extinction and what can be done to protect them. While it may seem easy enough to point the finger at climate change, which is certainly a factor, Pequeneza explains their current predicament can be distilled down to two very fixable problems: “Vessel strikes and entanglements”.

The latter happens when right whales become entangled in the ropes of lobster and snow crab fishermen, equipment those in the industry have been using for generations. As a possible solution, the researchers and fishermen involved in the film introduce audiences to the idea of ropeless fishing, a system involving acoustic communication that has been in use in Australia since 2012.

One of the participants of the film, Martin Noël, a third-generation crab fisher in Shippagan, New Brunswick, is at the forefront of testing this technology for use in the North Atlantic. Noël is also a part of a whale rescue team, along with three other fishermen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, who disentangles whales from the lobster and crab trap ropes and gear.

Crab Fisherman Martin Noël, looking out the window of his boat in Last of the Right Whales.

It was important to Pequeneza to highlight Noël’s work in an effort to rewrite the narrative often associated with fishermen. “You often hear about fishermen not caring about the environment and not taking precautions with the ocean,” she recalls. “But in fact if you talk to fishermen, you’ll find that they are very concerned about the health of the ocean because their livelihoods depends on it.”

This concern for the ocean and its wildlife is what Pequeneza is hoping to convey to her audience. Unless you come from a fishing community or are employed within the industry, it is possible for the general public to acknowledge these issues but to fail to engage with them in a meaningful way. “That was the key challenge: how do you get people to connect to this whale,” Pequeneza states. “Many have never seen a right whale or have even heard of a right whale.”

The scientific community generally frowns on anthropomorphizing animals; but, during the filmmaking process, Pequeneza found a great many parallels between human behaviour and that of the right whales. “They aren’t that different from us. They may look a lot different but there are many things that are similar to humans and animals, and certainly mammals,” explains Pequeneza. “We know that they communicate with each other through calls. They nurse their young for 6 to 8 months. They’re with them for 12 to 18 months. That mom and calf relationship—that bond that all humans understand—is so important.”

This is exemplified by a brilliant anecdote the director shared about a storm that separated moms and calves in the ocean. “We’re still trying to get the full story, [but] apparently the moms and calves got separated and [the] moms picked up each other’s calves,” she recalls. “[In another] incident, a mother died and another mom picked up that calf and took care of it.”

North Atlantic right whale Snow Cone and her calf. A scene from Last of the Right Whales.

The film creates a narrative arc with the whales, endearingly given names like Snow Cone and Punctuation by a consortium of researchers and scientists, setting Last of the Right Whales apart from other similar documentaries. To create this connection between audience and film, Pequeneza drew inspiration from Indigenous communities and their attitudes towards whales. “Even in their language, they would not refer to whales as ‘it’—it’s she or he. They use pronouns because they are living beings. And so I tried to take that approach and I think that will help the audience connect in a way that maybe they hadn’t before.”

To deepen the connection, the director had the good fortune of finding Deanna H. Choi, a first-time film composer, to score the feature. “It was just beautiful what she did with the music,” Pequeneza says thoughtfully. “There are certain scenes with whale calls and she was playing her music in a reciprocal way. It was almost like they were communicating.”

Choi’s music is captivating and goes a long way in supplementing the beautiful cinematography of the whales, the ocean and the affecting dialogue of the researchers and advocates. “She brought the right emotion to scenes. There are some very emotionally heavy moments in the film [and] we needed to make some scenes uplifting that [would otherwise] be demoralizing if they weren’t viewed through the correct lens.”

And in the end, Last of the Right Whales has a message of hope, not end of the world fear mongering. Practical solutions are offered that can make a huge impact on not just the right whales, but all ocean life.

For Pequeneza’s part, she isn’t a filmmaker who simply makes a movie, drops the subject and moves on. She is active in Impact Campaigns associated with her films and she hopes to inspire others to likewise take action. “Burying your head in the sand or ignoring things that are difficult is not the way we make things better. Turning away from the ugly does not make it better,” Pequeneza states firmly. “The goal is to get as many people as possible to see [Last of the Right Whales]. But even better, you give them the tools and the resources that they need to take all of that information and emotion they’re feeling after they watch the film, and translate it into something positive.”

And despite the challenging world captured in her lens, Pequeneza remains optimistic and positive for the future, due in large part to the inspiration she takes away from her films’ subjects. “It’s tough to watch these films, but there’s beauty in how people confront these challenges,” she continues. “I take great inspiration from people like that.”

Last of the Right Whales screens virtually as part of the Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival this Sunday, October 24. Tickets are now available for the closing night film.

The film is also set to open in select theatres in late winter and will also air as a part of CBC’s The Nature of Things in Fall 2022.

Editor’s Note: That Shelf Senior Editor Emma Badame is social strategist for Last of the Right Whales.