Charting the Search for Self


Who we are and how we determine that can be an arduous undertaking, one replete with doubt, uncertainty and even denial. But, if we’re to attain satisfaction and fulfillment in life, it’s a process we must all go through to discover just what makes us, us. No one’s immune from this either, not even those who possess seemingly superior powers that one might think would automatically come with greater self-awareness. Such is the dilemma faced by a reluctant superhero in the thrilling and thoughtful new action-adventure saga, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (web site, trailer).

Successfully running away from a troubled past may seem like an expedient and effective way of escaping it, but appearances can definitely be deceiving. So it is for Chinese immigrant Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who fled his homeland to find hoped-for peace of mind in San Francisco. He spends his days as a parking valet and knocking around with his friend and co-worker, Katy Chen (Awkwafina). However, it’s readily apparent that they’re both slumming it in their current occupations; they’re both vastly intellectually and academically overqualified to be parking cars for a living. So why are they doing it?

In a sense, Katy and Shang-Chi (who has now Americanized his name as “Shaun”) are both hiding from – and searching for – themselves. Katy is trying to duck from her overbearing mother (Jodi Long), who clearly wants her daughter to follow a traditional lifestyle as a wife and mother, something Katy knows she doesn’t want, despite an obvious uncertainty about what to replace it with. As for Shaun, his choice to hide from himself is also a deliberate decision, one to withdraw from his past, something he rarely talks about. Yet there’s definitely more to Shaun and who he is than he lets on, something that becomes unexpectedly and startlingly exposed.

One morning, while Shaun and Katy are riding the bus to work, he’s approached by a band of thugs seeking to steal a green pendant that he never takes off. The necklace was a gift from his deceased mother, Li (Fala Chen), who told him that it would always help him find his way home if he ever got into trouble. Given the sentimental value of this piece of jewelry (and the secret power he suspects it possesses), Shaun refuses to give it up, and a fight ensues that makes the battle scenes in most kung fu movies pale by comparison. As Katy and stunned onlookers stand agape at what unfolds – most notably Shaun’s never-before-seen fighting expertise – the bad guys are systematically taken out, including a muscle-bound Romanian hunk named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), whose missing right hand has been replaced with an appendage befitting his name. But, in the midst of the conflict, Shaun discovers the pendant is missing, apparently snatched by the thugs as they made their escape.

When all is said and done, Katy is dumbfounded by what happened, prompting her to coax Shaun to come clean about what happened. It’s at that point when she (and viewers) learn of her friend’s mysterious past. Shang-Chi grew up with a once-powerful, self-serving father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who spent a millennium amassing wealth and virtually limitless power thanks to his command of 10 magical rings that he found (and never took off). That outlook changed, however, when the supreme master met Li, the only person capable of defeating him in battle, something she did by winning over his heart. Wenwu’s prevailing attitude changed from one of greed to one of loving benevolence, a new perspective that led to marriage and the birth of two children, Shang-Chi (Jayden Chang) and his sister, Xialing (Elodie Fong). But, when Li died, Wenwu was so heartbroken that he began reverting to his old ways, even training his teenage son (Arnold Sun) to become a reluctant assassin, a role than Shang-Chi clearly did not want to play. So, when his father gave him his first assignment, Shang-Chi used the opportunity to flee to America, never looking back.

Now, however, with the theft of the pendant, Shang-Chi realizes that his father has discovered where he has been hiding when he learns that dad dispatched his henchmen to grab the jewelry – and to send a message. He also knows that his now-adult sister (Meng’er Zhang), who is still living in China, is also likely in danger, especially since she possesses a matching pendant, one that, if paired with the stolen item, might unleash tremendous powers that could spell trouble for more than just him and Xialing.

Realizing what he must do, Shang-Chi departs for China. And Katy, who believes she has nothing to lose by tagging along, joins him as they go in search of his sister to warn her. But the journey turns out to be nothing what they expect as they encounter a highly self-sufficient Xialing, along with an ever more determined Wenwu and his army of minions, including the infamous Razor Fist. Their odyssey subsequently takes Shang-Chi, Xialing and Katy far afield from the world they’ve grown accustomed to, including forays into mysterious territory akin to the mythical Shangri-La, where they meet great warriors, magical creatures, a has-been actor (Ben Kingsley) and long-lost family members, such as their wise and courageous aunt, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). It proves to be quite the adventure, one that tests everyone’s character and beliefs – and enables the trio of young adults to at last find themselves.

Like many films in this genre, in the process of discovering himself, Shang-Chi comes to the realization that he’s a bona fide superhero. But, more than that, like many comparable origin story films, he finds his authentic self, his mission in life, his reason for being. And that happens because he begins to believe in that notion.

This is something of a challenging road for Shang-Chi, because, on some level, he knew this about himself all along but seemed to willfully deny it. The memories of his troubled upbringing after his mother’s death most likely contributed significantly to this. When his anguished father began reverting to his old ways and starting training his son to use his abilities for nefarious purposes, this imposed change of course in Shang-Chi’s life did not set well with him. His mother lovingly taught him to use his abilities for beneficial purposes, just as she did when she swayed Wenwu to change his ways. But, when Li was no longer in the picture to guide him, Shang-Chi fell under the influence and tutelage of his father, who set an example that was anything but honorable and caused the idealistic teen to hide his true feelings for fear of severe ridicule from his dad. And, when Shang-Chi made his escape to America, he put his past behind him, including any desire to use his abilities benevolently. Shaun retreated into himself and shut the door tightly behind him.

Such barriers can stay in place for only so long. At some point, the focus required to erect and maintain those intangible barricades becomes overwhelming, and what they’re designed to hold back can no longer be contained. Circumstances will arise to liberate what’s been “artificially” restrained, hence the encounter with Wenwu’s goons that led to Shaun’s transformation back into Shang-Chi.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Shang-Chi is not the only one going through an evolutionary growth spurt. Katy follows suit, leaving behind her old life to find her own authentic self as well. To a great degree, this involves getting out from under her mother’s thumb. But that’s not all; as a somewhat immature wild child, she needs to find something to focus on, something with a purpose, an undertaking that will allow her to channel her outlook into something meaningful, useful and purposeful. And, as her odyssey takes shape, it involves more than just being Shang-Chi’s sidekick; she looks for and finds a way to liberate her own authentic self.

Interestingly, both Shang-Chi and Katy draw considerable inspiration from Xialing. When the long-separated siblings reconnect, Shang-Chi finds that his baby sister has grown quite self-reliant in her own right, in many ways more so than he has. When Shang-Chi learns how she accomplished this, he’s duly impressed, given that she made use of her abilities at the same time he was abandoning his own. Xialing’s experience thus gives Shang-Chi a source of encouragement and motivation to draw upon, not only in his words and deeds, but also in the outlook he adopts to forge a new path for himself, enabling his true superhero self to emerge and prosper.

In addition to following such inspiration, Shang-Chi learns how to rid himself of notions that no longer serve him, specifically those associated with fears, limitations and allowing the ghosts of his past to dictate the course of his life. That’s a crucial step for anyone searching for oneself, for such hindrances keep us locked in place and prevent us from realizing what we desire. At the same time, this also calls for a willingness to accept and embrace change. New outlooks are obviously called for when the old ones no longer function, so anyone looking to move forward must be comfortable with this step as well. That may not be easy, given how many of us tend to resist change at almost any cost, but it’s essential for forward progress to occur.

Once Shang-Chi understands all of the foregoing issues, he comes to see that he’s at last able to live out his destiny, the practice of being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Being a superhero is obviously what Shang-Chi was meant to do. But his path in discovering that may be a little more challenging than for others embracing their destinies. His circumstances heavily involve his readiness and ability to choose that course. Shang-Chi’s destiny is not simply handed to him; he has to want to pursue it and take the steps needed to make it happen. Fortunately, he has plenty of wherewithal and inspiration to help bring that about, an outcome that truly is super.

For a film that I wasn’t especially looking forward to, this latest offering from the Marvel Universe certainly surprised me. While the trailer appeared to bill this as little more than a grandiose martial arts movie, director Destin Daniel Cretton’s latest has an epic quality about it, presenting a story that’s mythic in nature and infused with themes related to morality, personal evolution and coming into one’s own, qualities not often found in releases like this. The picture is essentially an origin story piece in the same vein as “Captain Marvel” (2019) and “Black Panther” (2018), with a narrative that mirrors both of these cinematic predecessors but with better overall execution, especially in the writing and pacing. Besides its captivating story and well-orchestrated (though generally not overdone) action sequences, this offering features ample comic relief, unexpected touches of whimsy and surprisingly good performances, especially from Awkwafina, Yeoh and Kingsley. While the film’s closing act is admittedly a little too drawn out, that’s a small price to pay for everything else it has to offer. “Shang-Chi” is easily one of the best films of the summer season and one of the finest additions to the Marvel Universe to come along in quite some time. Action-adventure fans will surely enjoy it, but even those generally less drawn to this genre will likely come away from this one having had a good, uplifting and entertaining time. The film is currently playing in theaters.

Living up to our potential can be one of the most daunting journeys we’ll ever embark upon. It brings us face to face with the core of our being, forcing us to deal with our true selves, whether we like it or not. We might even try to shy away from it, thinking it’s beyond our capability to deal with. But, once we realize that’s who we really are, it becomes easier to accept and to make peace with it. And, with such an alignment in place, there’s no telling what we might achieve. Who knows – we might even save the world. And wouldn’t that be fun.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Movies That Will Leave You Reeling

Movie lovers interested in viewing some of the finest in LGBTQ+ cinema should be sure to check out Reeling 2021, the 39th Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, September 23 to October 7 in the Windy City. The festival is scheduled to present an array of films, including narrative features, documentaries and collections of shorts.

As the second longest-running festival of its kind, Reeling is once again becoming an innovator in its programming. In 2020, when the COVID-19 threat presented a risk to moviegoers attending screenings in theaters, the festival went virtual, enabling viewers to watch its offerings from the safety of their own homes, an option that many audience members enjoyed and expressed interest in the festival continuing.

So, in 2021, Reeling is bringing viewers the best of both worlds – in-theater screenings at Chicago’s Landmark Century and Music Box Theaters and online streaming options, enabling movie fans to pick what best suits them. And you don’t need to be in Chicago to see them! While some offerings are territory-restricted to Illinois only, a number of others are available for streaming across the US, a development that takes the festival and its programming to a new level.

As the festival’s web site notes, viewers have the option to purchase tickets to individual screenings (either in theaters or online) or to buy all-access passes, a tremendous value for avid movie lovers. For further information about tickets, programming (including descriptions of the films) and other information, visit Reeling’s web site by clicking here. I’ll be there, so look for me, even if virtually! 

Making an Indelible Artistic Splash

It’s easy to dismiss certain possibilities as being wholly impossible. But, as life has often shown us, that’s patently lazy, unimaginative thinking. The seemingly implausible can indeed occur with a little adjustment in outlook (and, of course, the accompanying logistics). So it is for a challenged but inspired group of creatives as explored in the uplifting documentary, “Straight Off the Canvas” (web site).

How many of us have given thought to the notion that blind or visually impaired individuals can become artists? How can they possibly “visualize” a finished product that they can’t see or possibly even envision it in the same way that the sighted do? It may seem completely unlikely, but, as director Anthony Saldana’s film illustrates, it’s not only possible but has indeed happened.

“Straight Off the Canvas” profiles a number of blind artists and art teachers who have succeeded in their odds-defying efforts. This material is supplemented by interviews with professionals and advocates who work with these creatives to help inspire them or to develop workarounds for issues that might present logistical problems. And the results are nothing short of amazing.

Elizabeth Castellano, for instance, is a painter and former art teacher who was born blind. She gained some sight with a corneal transplant as a teen, but her visual capabilities were still far less than a typical sighted person. Nevertheless, she was inspired by the drawings of her childhood friend Katherine Gelchinsky and was determined to follow suit, becoming something that most everyone thought she could never do. As she experimented with painting styles over the years, she learned after a time that her visual impairment could actually influence and even characterize her own form of artistic expression, one that’s more emotive than realistic. In fact, she admits, becoming too realistic in her work would expose the impairment and undermine her style’s inherent singular validity.

Blind artist Elizabeth Castellano demonstrates her personal approach to creating a painting as seen in director Anthony Saldana’s uplifting documentary, “Straight Off the Canvas.” Photo courtesy of Anthony Saldana and Straight Off the Canvas.

Jessica Jones is a teacher at New York’s Lavelle School for the Blind who majored in the arts in college, but she went blind as a result of diabetic retinopathy in adulthood. She carries on, though, showing other aspiring blind artists how to fulfill their potential. She says she gets the greatest joy out of art when she’s making items to be given as gifts or when she’s teaching others (especially visually impaired kids) to become artists in their own right.

As these artists and art therapist Sarah Valeri have discovered, though, some adjustments are needed to help aspiring painters live up to their potential. For example, when it comes to the concept of “color,” how does one express it only verbally? How does one who’s unsighted understand the difference between orange and purple? And how does one relate the idea to someone who can’t differentiate and/or perceive color in the same way as someone sighted? Valeri says it needs to be expressed as a feeling, not as a visual (or purely verbal) description. Comparing yellow to warmth or red to passion, for example, helps to convey these notions without ever seeing these hues firsthand. Similarly, creating a sample board of swatches of different materials helps to convey an awareness of different types of textures and the feelings they invoke, notions that can then be translated into artistic expressions.

According to Elizabeth Axel, creative director of Art Beyond Sight, bridging the gap between aspiring blind artists and a sighted world that takes its visual capabilities for granted is crucial to help these individuals fulfill their dreams. She stresses the need to overcome the limitations that the sighted community has set for what constitutes “visual art.” These assumptions need to be supplemented with notions that are more inclusive, making it possible for art to be understood and appreciated in additional ways. For example, “accessible” museums – those that encourage a more tactile experience of art – are an effective way of accomplishing this, offering tremendous therapeutic value for those who are blind and still want to be able to appreciate the qualities of art that the sighted enjoy.

As the film clearly points out, the foregoing illustrates some of the widely held misconceptions about what the blind are capable of. Drawing on a scene from D.W. Griffiths’s film “Orphans of the Storm” (1921), for instance, director Saldana shows how attitudes about blindness became rooted, established and reinforced in the thinking of the sighted world. Blindness, the Griffith film asserts, renders someone helpless, a condition equivalent to the powerlessness, vulnerability and dependence of a newborn baby. In addition to robbing the blind of their sense of personal empowerment, this outlook proved to be a damaging, close-minded notion for art, because it made art into something considered in visual terms only. And the visually impaired and their advocates have been battling that stigma ever since.

Would-be blind artists need to be reassured that there is no right or wrong when it comes to creating, assessing or appreciating art. Helping the visually impaired understand this draws attention to the importance of art therapy, a practice that connects the mental, emotional and physical aspects of art, creating a wholeness built on these traits and providing a safe milieu for expressing oneself. And, with suitable modifications and adaptations, limitations to achieving these goals can easily be overcome.

“Accessible” museums – those that encourage appreciation of the artistic experience in ways other than just visual terms – provide the visually impaired with a means to enjoy art in ways that go beyond the terms traditionally dictated by the sighted world as depicted in the new documentary, “Straight Off the Canvas.” Photo courtesy of Anthony Saldana and Straight Off the Canvas.

This also illustrates the importance of making adept teachers available to instruct artistic aspirants, a sentiment summed up in the film by a quote from visionary Albert Einstein: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Good teachers are crucial to helping would-be artists becoming actual artists, a blessing that truly inspired Castellano to launch her artistic vocation and to become a teacher in her own right. This is especially true where blind art teachers are concerned, for they have the ability to inspire blind students, giving them someone to identify with. These teachers can draw from their own experience in telling their kids “You can do this.” What’s more, blind teachers aren’t limited to instructing blind students; those who are talented enough can effectively instruct the sighted as well.

In addition to these timeless themes, the film includes a segment rooted in contemporary conditions – the practice of art under quarantine. COVID-19 has impacted all of us in numerous ways, and it has imposed additional challenges upon those with special needs, like the visually impaired. When those conditions are added to the already-challenging circumstances that blind artists (and particularly blind child artists) must face, the importance of providing further adaptations to their artistic and teaching practices surfaces. As the artists in the film explain, art helps people cope with the conditions of the pandemic, especially during confinement. That’s especially true for students who are separated from their teachers and from one another under these conditions. Thus it has become critical to be able to adjust tactics as needed. But, then, as the film shows, that’s nothing new for the visually impaired.

The importance of art in our lives can’t be underestimated. Indeed, the need to create is essential to our existence – and that’s true for all of us. The personal value and self-worth that come from our individual artistic expression gives our lives meaning as contributors to the human condition – and as a calling card to let others know we’re here.

The importance of art in our lives can’t be underestimated. Indeed, the need to create is essential to our existence – and that’s true for all of us. The personal value and self-worth that come from our individual artistic expression gives our lives meaning as contributors to the human condition – and as a calling card to let others know we’re here.

The very notion of a visually impaired individual becoming an artist may seem outlandish, even foolhardy. Yet here are examples of people who have said no to the naysayers. The fact that they have succeeded in their quests suggests that they’ve had visionary experiences in which they have overcome their handicaps to become practitioners of their art. Some would likely even go so far as to say that they don’t possess handicaps at all but that they’ve been imbued with special gifts to further distinguish their craft in their own singular ways.

A student from the Lavelle School for the Blind shows off his creation at an exhibition of his classmates’ works in “Straight Off the Canvas.” Photo courtesy of Anthony Saldana and Straight Off the Canvas.

Such is what happens when one believes in the possibility. For starters, they have been able to envision outcomes that would seem to defy most expectations. That’s a crucial starting point, for if they’re able to picture the destinations they’re seeking, it’s only a matter of time before the means follow to make those outcomes happen. Indeed, if one can dream it, one can create it; all it takes is filling in some of the blanks that fall in between, backed by beliefs, thoughts and deeds that suit those needs.

Perhaps the biggest challenge individuals in these circumstances must face is coming up with ways to overcome the limitations standing in their way. This will likely call for making necessary adaptations, which, in turn, may require regular thinking outside the box. However, since creatives often tend to deal with the unconventional, that shouldn’t be particularly difficult in most cases. The inventiveness and innovation that they employ in coming up with their finished pieces are often the same qualities that they can draw upon in solving the logistical problems that arise along the way. All they need do is tap into that mindset, and the necessary insights are once again sure to follow.

What’s perhaps most crucial for these artists is the example they’re able to set, not only for other blind individuals, but also for anyone seeking to become an artist. They inspire and motivate other aspirants, and they add beauty and creativity to a world very much in need of it (especially these days). That’s quite a contribution in itself. And, when we see what they can do, we might well forget that they’re starting from a position that’s more challenging than most of us would ever face.

“Straight Off the Canvas” is indeed an inspiring and educational offering, one that will surprise many viewers every step of the way. And, for that accomplishment, the film has won 13 awards in film festival and other competitions, taking home the prize every time it has been nominated. Director Anthony Saldana has compiled a fine film, one that he looks to promote as an instructional tool to help advance the cause of blind artists through screening licenses and DVD sales targeted at educational institutions, including universities, schools, museums and nonprofit organizations. It’s always heartening to see a picture that does more than just entertain, and this release does just that.

To find out more about “Straight Off the Canvas,” tune in to the September 16 edition of The Good Media Network’s Mission Unstoppable video podcast with host Frankie Picasso and yours truly. We’ll interview director Anthony Saldana to learn how the documentary came together and where he takes it from here. Catch us on Facebook Live at 1 pm ET by clicking here, followed by a recorded rebroadcast on YouTube.

It’s been said that “A thing of beauty is a joy to behold.” Considering how the works of these artists were created, that goes double here. And, thanks to this film, we have the opportunity to discover that for ourselves.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Case for Connection

Imagine having something to say, but no one is able to understand you. With no active dialogue or meaningful feedback involved, the “conversation” soon turns one-sided. And, if no responses are forthcoming any time soon, loneliness and sadness are bound to set in. The feeling of isolation this creates could easily become overwhelming. It’s a truly disheartening situation. But, in this case, this scenario isn’t describing something that one of us is experiencing; it’s an account of what might very well be happening to one of our fellows in the animal kingdom, as seen in the touching new documentary, “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52” (web site, trailer).

During the Cold War, the US Navy established an undersea tracking system to listen for the presence of Soviet subs, the Sound Surveillance System US (SOSUS). According to Joseph George, Retired Chief, US Navy, Integrated Undersea Surveillance System, in the process of listening for these vessels, the system began picking up the sounds of whale songs. These whale sounds were differentiated from those emanated by submarines based on variations in their signal frequencies, specifically their Herz levels. And, over time, with more listening, researchers were able to decipher differences in the frequencies produced by various whale species.

According to Dr. Christopher W. Clark, senior scientist at Cornell University, blue whales sing at a frequency of 100 Herz. Fin whales, by contrast, croon in a rhythmic pattern. And humpback whales, whose elaborate and prolonged songs are perhaps best known, have their own characteristic signature. But, in 1989, a signal was discovered that didn’t fit any of the established patterns, and it appeared to be coming from a single source. As this signal was seemingly the only source of any sounds on this unique 52 Herz frequency, researchers weren’t exactly sure what they had found. It was presumed to be coming from a whale, but it was unlike anything that had ever been discovered before, perhaps even a previously unknown species. In any event, this incident thus marked the beginning of the legacy of “52,” an apparently solitary whale that was somehow singing on its own frequency.

Several years later, oceanographer Bill Watkins isolated the 52 whale and tracked it for 12 years, plotting its migration pattern. But he never undertook a search for it prior to his death, given the unlikelihood of finding a single whale in such a vast expanse of ocean whose believed territory stretched from southern California to Alaska. And, considering that some whale species can cover as much ground as 2,500 miles in a single day, the search would be akin to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Nevertheless, the discovery in itself was considered significant, and the creature was subsequently nicknamed “the Watkins Whale” in honor of the man who found it.

So what exactly was this Watkins whale? Could it be a hybrid, perhaps of a blue whale and a fin whale? Was it a new, previously unknown species? Or was it some other kind of oceanic anomaly altogether? Researchers over the years were curious to find out, but, realistically speaking, they understood the challenges involved, many of which recalled the sentiments expressed by Watkins himself. What’s more, since no one had been tracking 52 for many years, there was also a question about whether the creature was still alive. Even though a number of whale species can live as long as 70 years, there was no indication of how old 52 was when its vocal footprint was first spotted in 1989 and whether it could still be within its hypothetically projected life span. Yet researchers also conceded that perhaps alternative investigative practices could be employed to find 52; after all, they said, with whales, what we hear can often be more revealing than what we see.

The “Watkins whale” (a.k.a, “52”) searched for in this film could well be a hybrid of a blue whale, like the one depicted above, and a fin whale, a combination that may account for its means of communication on a unique signal frequency all its own, a notion explored in the touching new documentary, “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.”

As the foregoing illustrates, sound can be quite a telling indicator when it comes to whales. Those curious about looking for 52, notably filmmaker Joshua Zeman and a team of researchers, believed that the classified SOSUS information collected since 52 was last tracked could prove quite helpful to see if its signal had been spotted in the interim. However, for national security reasons, permission to access the data was initially denied. But assistance in obtaining this information soon came from an unlikely source. Robert Dziak, PMEL Acoustics Program Manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who studies underwater volcanoes using SOSUS data, was able to secure it to aid a new effort to find the Watkins whale.

After a review of the SOSUS data, NOAA scientist Sara Heimlich came across a pattern on the 52 Herz frequency where a signal appeared to be repeatedly emitted in 10-segment bursts. However, even though this may have been a calling card from the whale, the data was determined not to be specific enough. So, if researchers wanted to find it, they would have to go look for it.

An effort was thus launched to put together an investigative team. Since it was believed that 52 could be a hybrid of a blue whale and a fin whale (and that it could be travelling in pods made up of either or both of these species), the team sought out experts who were well-versed in their knowledge of these creatures. The investigative crew tapped the expertise of a number of scientists and oceanic specialists, including John Hildebrand, bioacoustics professor at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and John Calambokidis of the Cascadia Research Collaborative. Calambokidis studied blue whales for 35 years and believed he once may have found evidence of a possible hybrid whale that might have been 52, though no sound data was collected at the time to definitively verify this conclusion.

A seven-day search was organized, conducted off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, a chief feeding/migratory path for blue whales, fin whales and humpbacks, 52’s most likely “relatives.” Investigators listened for these species with sonobuoys formerly used by the US Navy, and groups of blue, fin and humpback whales were tagged to see if they could lead the researchers to 52. It was believed that 52 could well have been alone in a whale community. It was also believed that other whales could hear it but couldn’t understand it because of its unique frequency, a circumstance that made 52 “the ultimate outsider.”

All of the interest in 52 naturally raised the question, why were researchers so curious about it? In many ways, this became a story where myth meets science. Many wondered, is the whale itself truly lonely? The question itself even began to be celebrated in story and song, a fable that somehow struck a chord with people, including those outside the scientific community. Many found themselves becoming sympathetic to the whale’s plight. How lonely it must be for that creature. But, then, given troubling developments in human society in recent years related to breakdowns in our own communication, listening and interaction practices, this sentiment somehow resonated with us. We could appreciate what 52 might be going through, because we had been going through it ourselves to greater and more disturbing degrees.

Cetacean researchers have found in their studies of whales and dolphins that these animals are highly intelligent. Neuroscience professor Patrick R. Hof, for example, says that whales have cellular structure in their brain physiology supporting this idea, as well as a sense of sentience and self-awareness. What’s more, animal psychologist Vint Virga observes that whales are also highly social beings as evidenced, for example, by the existence and structure of their communities. And, when one puts all of these ideas together, could that indeed make the case that 52 might genuinely be lonely? If we can sense that, and if we know firsthand what those conditions might be like, then perhaps there’s a viable basis for believing it to be true where the Watkins whale is concerned.

Obviously there’s more to this story than just a search for a scientific curiosity, even if the exact nature of the investigation is difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps it’s the search itself that’s what matters most. Maybe our quest to find 52 is a metaphor to find ourselves, especially when it comes to locating the parts of ourselves that are missing, filling voids that are desperately in need of being filled. Indeed, what we’re looking for and what 52 may be looking for could be the same thing, and that’s a concept we can relate to and identify with. If we can find 52, then maybe there’s a way we can help one another to give us and it what’s needed – and to overcome the oppressing loneliness.

The story of 52 is a touching one in many ways. It’s truly astounding how a film – particularly a documentary – can evoke such a genuine emotional response for a being that’s not a fellow human. But the parallels in our respective circumstances cry out for our attention, for the insights we glean from the whale’s story have benefits for us as well. And, when we come to believe that, we begin to realize that the creature’s experience could indeed be a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

Such beliefs, in turn, are important for the impact they have in shaping the nature of our reality. If we can relate to the qualities that characterize 52’s situation, we can’t help but ask ourselves, do we really want to end up the same way? Do we truly want to live in a world where we’re unable to connect and communicate with others, especially when we seem to be unwittingly yet intentionally creating circumstances that bring about such a result? Indeed, perhaps we’re so drawn to this saga because we don’t want to end up living under the same conditions, and 52’s experience can help to make us aware of that possibility before it’s too late. It’s one thing to assert our individuality, but it’s something else entirely to do so by becoming loners.

There are a number of stories involving whales over the years that have helped or could be helping us to come to comparable realizations, several of which are addressed in the film. For instance, at one time, man hunted whales indiscriminately, bringing a number of species to the brink of endangerment or even possible extinction. But, as Roger Payne of the Ocean Alliance points out, once humanity was made aware of the intelligence of these creatures (thanks to the popularization of recordings of whale songs in the 1970s), we had a drastic change of heart. How could we possibly think about callously killing these beings? In fact, how could we realistically think about doing that to any of the other species that occupy this planet with us? Whales helped teach us that lesson, enabling us to change our beliefs and their associated outcomes, and we have them to thank for it. Indeed, as Payne put it, “When people care, they can change the world.”

Even if the foregoing enabled us to drastically change the course of history, that’s not to say we don’t still have work to do, and whales are again showing us what needs to be done. Oceanic sound pollution, for example, could be inhibiting 52’s ability to communicate with its kindreds, but researchers have come to discover that this is actually a growing issue for all whales. Sound distortions created by freighters, submarines and underwater explosions conducted to search for new oil reserves all lead to confusion for the whales, especially those whose feeding territories overlap with the areas from which these sounds emanate. This can cause such problems as whales being mutilated and killed when they become entangled with the propellers of boats they’re unable to avoid in time. This issue is thus depriving whales of their native habitats and their natural ability to communicate, and we’re responsible. These incidents could be aimed at helping to make us aware of the problem and enabling us once again to change our beliefs while we still have the chance, not only for the whales’ sake, but also a means to help preserve and protect our own environment.

As director Zeman observes, the relationship between man and whales hasn’t always been an easy one. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick, in which the obsessed Captain Ahab was determined to defeat his allegedly demonic nemesis, the great white whale, at any cost. But, as science has shown since the penning of that work, the notion that whales could be looked upon in that light is a huge fallacy, one of mankind’s greatest follies driven by ignorance and the beliefs that back it up. Now that we know more, however, we can drop those erroneous convictions and enable ourselves to embrace more enlightened principles like respect, tolerance and keeping an open mind until we know all the facts. In fact, Ahab’s experience illustrates the potential danger in falling prey to obsessions of any kind, not just those associated with recklessly killing whales. Yet this is another case where it’s taken a whale’s tale to help us come to that realization. (Who says these undersea creatures don’t know a thing or two?)

As the whales continue their work with us as teachers, there are other areas in which they can help us. For instance, 52’s tale is a key example when addressing our collective connection and communication issues, helping us mend the needlessly severed ties with our human tribe. But they can also work with us individually, helping us to learn personal lessons of great importance, depending on our particular interaction with them. In that regard, they can thus become mentors for us, enlightening us to heartfelt individual insights that can help us with our own personal growth and development, not unlike what the “kindly” tiny mollusk did for filmmaker Craig Foster in the Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher” (2020). Perhaps 52, in its own way, is doing the same for us, both individually and en masse.

Perhaps the greatest takeaway for us from this film is the concept that the world around us is a reflection of our inner selves. That includes all the creatures that share this reality with us, and our cetacean cousins’ presence is to help remind us of that. They reinforce the idea of connecting with one another, both among fellow humans and across species lines. They make clear that we must be responsible, accountable stewards of our environment (indeed, of the entirety of our existence). And they show us, by way of the examples they set within their own pod communities, that we must all get along with one another if any of us hope to survive. Let’s hope we’re listening to more than just their enchanting melodies.

The search for connection is something that we all understand, not only as a social practice, but also as a personal and collective need, and this film effectively conveys that message. The mythology that has emerged about this enigmatic creature is thus more than just a sweet and sentimental tale, with insights that are clearly presented and shared in a thoughtful and straightforward, but by no means dogmatic, manner. The film also provides a detailed, captivating and beautifully filmed, though not excessively technical, account of the seven-day expedition to search for the cetacean social outcast. The picture’s sidebar stories are fascinating, too, even if often introduced somewhat awkwardly. The insertion of a number of somewhat self-aggrandizing observations from the director admittedly impedes the flow of the narrative at times, but the picture’s other strengths make up for this, especially its metaphorical parables that we had all better heed if we hope to save the whales – and ourselves.

After a brief theatrical run in early summer, “The Loneliest Whale” has since become available for streaming online. Viewers should be cautioned, however, not to confuse this offering with “Fathom,” another documentary about whales available for streaming that was also released over the summer – and did a far less successful job in telling its story. If it’s whales you’re looking for, 52’s story is the one to watch.

As much as humans like to think of themselves as the most advanced species occupying this world, it’s undeniable we still have much to learn, and the fellow residents of this place we call Earth obviously have much to teach us, as 52’s experience illustrates. We should be grateful for their presence – and their companionship – for joining us on this journey. Not only do they make it more enjoyable, but they also enlighten us, helping to make the world a better place for all of us.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.