Dec 10, 2007

Movie Review: A Life Among Whales

Whale imageWhy am I talking about a whale documentary in a blog about fundraising? Because this movie is a powerful reminder that the first step toward successful fundraising is to touch someone's heart -- and to make people realize they can make a difference.

A Life Among Whales (2005) does both.

The documentary centers on the life of Dr. Roger Payne, the whale biologist and activist largely responsible for bringing the phrase "Save the Whales" into public use. (In fact, his legacy can probably be traced straight to HEROES star Hayden Panetierre's recent arrest warrant for trying to stop whaling in Japan, as part of the "Save the Whales Again!" campaign.)

At a time when much of the world regarded whales as dangerous creatures best harpooned for their meat, Dr. Payne was dangling microphones underwater and recording their songs. He released these as a record called "Songs of the Humpback Whale", which remains the bestselling natural history recording ever made.

In the course of Dr. Payne's efforts, the International Whaling Commission was formed -- ostensibly to protect the whales -- and a moratorium on commercial whaling was eventually declared. But the big shocker of the movie is how whalers have sailed right through a loophole in the moratorium, by claiming that they're whaling for "scientific purposes." In film footage that could qualify its subjects for a hypocrisy award, whalers knifing open just-caught whales hold signs above their heads (obviously aware they're being filmed) saying "Collecting tissue samples." Yeah, right.

But let's get this back to the fundraising theme. One interesting question that the film raises is the classic one: What balance do you strike, in your outreach efforts, between making people feel good and shocking them to the core? If I'd known how much whale blood would be in this film -- and scenes of thrashing after a harpoon hit -- I honestly might have waited a lot longer to see it. But it was certainly effective, and the other footage of free-swimming whales, closeup and underwater, was breathtaking. Let's just say it's a good thing they used one of the peaceful images of a swimming whale on the DVD cover! Dr. Payne himself alludes to the power of images, by mentioning that the whalers go to great lengths to make sure the public doesn't see footage of the latest kill method -- electrocution.

Of course, if you're a fundraiser, it's not your job to go out and make movies. But this movie was also a reminder of how helpful close communication between fundraisers and other activists can be. By the end of this movie, I probably would have given over my life savings (such as they are) to anti-whaling efforts -- yet I don't remember a mention of where we could go to help. Maybe it was there, but perhaps too subtly presented for this viewer to catch it. And maybe the producer and director didn't want to come off as advertising -- but isn't that one of the most frequently made mistakes in fundraising, to assume that people will be offended by information on how to give?

Dr. Payne's words on the subject of what individuals can do were eloquent, however. I didn't write them down, but he essentially said feeling like one person can't possibly make a difference is all too common -- but that, in reflecting on his own life, he has learned that the opposite is true. In fact, when enough people want to see a change, it can happen in an instant.

By the way, a quick Google search shows that Dr. Payne is currently affiliated with Ocean Alliance.