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Patrick and the Whale

Nature documentarist attempts to communicate and to forge an emotional bond with two different sperm whales, in this fascinating tale of cross-species trust and affection - live from the Transylvania Film Festival


Patrick Dykstra left behind a promising law career in the US in order to become a wildlife videographer. His passion for whales started during his childhood, when he visited a museum and saw the replica of a blue whale. He set out to meet “the largest animal ever to have inhabited Earth”, but it was a a group of sperm whales in the Caribbean Sea, near Dominica, that gave him the opportunity to connect. Their bigger cousins are just too busy feeding all the time in order to sustain their enormous physique, and never gave Patrick much attention.

The American lawyer-turned-cameraman gets very close to a whale individual whom he names Dolores. A few inches away. They stare firmly at each other. Patrick spins, Dolores spins. Patrick is also close to another female called Can Opener, who he has known for about 10 years, and her calf Hope. He is acquainted with a number of further individuals, but decides to focus on these two BFFs instead. His objective: to get intimate enough with the whales so that he can consensually tag them. The tagging device is a small camera with suckers that come off about eight hours later.

Patrick emits click noises in an attempt to establish some sort of dialogue with his marine friends. Sperm whales are the loudest creature on earth, and they possess a complex language system that we’re yet to decipher, Patrick tells us. The film is directed by Austrian nature documentarist Mark Fletcher. Patrick is captured by the lens of DoP Rupert Murray and his four underwater cinematographers (Patrick himself is one of them, almost invariable with a camera to hand, hoping to register the closets and most intimate moments with the cetaceans). The film also includes extensive drone footage, emphasising the enormity of the mysterious sea habitat.

At one point, Dolores approaches Patrick with a giant squid tentacle still attached to her teeth, evidence that she’s just been hunting thousands of feet below, where it’s pitch dark and the the water pressure just too high for human beings to handle. Dolores remains unfazed, just like a human being unaware that a large piece of coriander is tarnishing their smile. Such casualness permeates the entire film, giving viewers the sensation that Patrick is indeed a close friend of the giant creatures.

Fascinatingly, we learn that these whales have a herd mentality. Their feed together, and spend most of their lives in closely-knit pods. They remain loyal to each other even when faced with the prospect of death. This may explain why whale hunting was once so prolific, with entire pods being killed by a single hunting vessel. They even commit suicide together: Patrick visits the Yorkshire coast, where he encounters the corpses of 10 young male teens. He does not know why they all decided to die together. Such sense of collectiveness is very rare in the animal kingdom, and human beings find their rationale difficult to grasp.

Despite the multiple cinematographers, Patrick and the Whale feels like a very personal film. It is Patrick that narrates the entire story. He often questions the consequences of his potentially intrusive actions. Will Dolores and Can Opener become upset if he places a camera on them? The latter individual is particularly sensitive because she has to look after her precious calf. Patrick also ponders about his own ego, and whether his motives are really noble. Is he objectifying and fetishising his animal friends? These reflections prevent Patrick and the Whale from becoming a narcissistic ordeal. The soft-spoken and calm Patrick seems very honest. Be prepared for an exuberant ending: a very simple cinematic devices allows humans to see whales from a very different perspective. Very touching. Very moving. And also very groovy!

This the latest movie in a string of nature documentaries that attempt to portray animals in a dignified light, including Gunda (Victor Kossakovsky, 2021) and My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich/ James Reed, 2021). It isn’t just acceptable that filmmakers should attempt to humanise animals. It is also commendable. We have a lot to learn from these creatures.

Patrick and the Whale showed at the 22nd Transylvania International Film Festival, in Cluj Napoca. DMovies is following the event live and in loco exclusively for you.

By Victor Fraga - 14-06-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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