VIFF 2021: Orca documentary Coextinction delves into salmon, pipeline, and river issues

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      Filmmakers Gloria Pancrazi and Elena Jean didn’t start out to make a feature-length documentary about B.C.’s southern resident orcas when they first met in 2017.

      Pancrazi was tracking J-pod’s members off Saturna Island, at the southern boundary of the Salish Sea’s Gulf Islands, and Jean joined the team studying the salmon-eating marine mammals that some call “killer whales”. (That label is a misnomer: orcas are not whales but the largest member of the dolphin family and will not harm humans.)

      Jean, a conservationist and filmmaker, had travelled the world, filming species at risk, and she found the plight of the endangered J-pod to be a compelling story, as did Pancrazi.

      In Toronto later that year, they decided to make a short film together. “It was the following summer when we were out in the field,” Jean told the Straight by phone recently from a car carrying her, Pancrazi, and other film-crew members to Jackson Wild, a film festival in Wyoming where the finished doc, Coextinction, is getting its world premiere on September 29. “It’s been a four-year total process, but three years making it.”

      Gloria Pancrazi (above) codirected Coextinction with Elena Jean.

      Jean added that they are just setting out on the festival circuit, which includes two upcoming live screenings and a weeklong B.C. virtual availability at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF).

      “It’s the beginning of a long month of travel,” she said, throwing in a mention that their film has been nominated for VIFF’s Rob Stewart Eco Warrior Award, first presented in 2019. She also said that the filmmakers are looking for a distribution deal, something that might come easier after the reviews for their polished, well-shot, and affecting documentary start making the rounds.

      Although the two documentary makers set out to focus Coextinction on the local issues that have brought the southern resident orcas their official endangered status—including the near-collapse of chinook salmon stocks (which make up about 80 percent of their diet), pollution, and noise from commercial marine traffic—they found that the greater conservation picture started dictating the course of their film’s production.

      “There’s a point of divergence [in Coextinction] where we’re following the pipeline expansion into the Interior of B.C.,” Jean said.

      Elena Jean (in yellow jacket) says the filmmakers started by focusing on orcas and later examined what a pipeline-expansion plan would have on their fate.

      That meant travelling to and filming on the territories of 15 different First Nations in Canada and the U.S. while studying two of the main threats to the salmon that feed the southern residents: dams on salmon-bearing river systems and the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline that will bring a huge increase in oil-tanker traffic to J-pod’s Salish Sea.

      The southern residents—made up of three pods, J,K, and L, with about 73 members that are continually tracked by researchers alert to any changes in their numbers and behaviour—have had few births during the past several years.

      As one of the orca experts interviewed for the film says, no births for five years will mean that the local population will be “functionally extinct”. And at that point, there had been no births for three years (though a couple of recent births have encouraged researchers).

      “I’m very worried, but I still have hope,” Pancrazi said. “I believe that there is no other option but hope.

      “I’m going to work very, very hard,” she added, “and we’re going to need everybody’s help.”

      Video: Watch the trailer for Coextinction.