A ‘Whale’ of a Tale — but Should It Be About the Story, or Advocacy?

Which technique is actually more powerful to change minds and affect lives?


Years ago, my wife, Suzanne Chisholm and I ran into a striking story. On the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, a young killer whale — an orca nicknamed Luna — had become separated from his pod.

Since orcas are highly social and he was alone, he had been trying to connect with people, just for social contact, not food. This led to all kinds of confusion, amazement, goofiness, contradictions, and, inevitably, to a classic conflict between well-meaning people with differing beliefs.

We realized that it was a great story, and we were used to the mantra that you get at every workshop on writing and producing nonfiction of any kind: The story, the mantra goes, is the most important thing. It’s all about story.

Well, when Suzanne and I started trying to find funding for our film, "The Whale," we wanted to make it not about the story but about advocacy. We were told that the documentary films that get funding are advocacy films, ones that forcefully tell people how to think. 

Well, we went ahead and made the film. We found someone who felt differently and got a little money, and the film — in limited release across the country — opened on Friday at the Laemmle’s Monica 4 in Los Angeles. It has already been named a Critics’ Pick by the New York Times, about which we are quite proud. 

But what about that question of advocacy and storytelling? Which technique is actually more powerful to change minds and affect lives? 

We happen to believe that both are effective in what they do, but that perhaps these days it may be worth doing a little more storytelling and a little less shouting.

It doesn’t take long on the Internet or on television to make you worry that communication in general seems increasingly strident, assertive, and angry. It’s generally agreed that we have become a society in which we just shout eloquently past one other, each thinking our arguments are so fierce and well reasoned that the other side will surrender, without noticing that the only thing we’re giving up is our sense of community.

This obviously needs to change, because it’s not working out very well right now. But how?

Isn’t it important to be an advocate in this world? Surely, for all lives to be improved on this Earth, human minds need to progress as knowledge grows. And how can you do that without telling people about it, and sometimes arguing?

Certainly, overt advocacy has enormous value, in large part because it motivates those who already agree with you, and that can lead to political victory. But sometimes you’re just polarizing things and firing up the defeated, and then victory is temporary. Eventually the balance swings back and defeats you. 

So how do you go about actually changing the minds and hearts of others, thus making change more lasting? Sometimes the best way may just be to tell a story. 

Why? Because storytelling is fundamentally welcoming. Advocacy yells at you, but storytelling invites you in. An advocate thinks you’re wrong; a storyteller trusts you to figure it out for yourself. You’re more open to the story.

When you watch a narrative film, you enter a new world created by the filmmakers. Their worldview is seldom described in dialogue or narration. The story simply rages along above it. But when you let the story carry you, you find yourself immersed in that world, and you absorb it all.

"The Whale" is more like these stories than most documentaries. It is a narrative, not a polemic, and it just tells a story with sequences and images and a great protagonist.

Luna was a striking character. If you were out in a boat, for instance, and you stopped to go fishing, all of a sudden here would be an orca, his cloud of breath ripe with the aroma of fresh fish, bobbing around by your boat, sticking his nose in your face, squeaking at you, opening his mouth to have his tongue rubbed, and, most stunningly and memorably, looking you in the eye in a way that a scientist described as “contemplative.”

Driven by Luna’s need for what we think of as friendship, the film does not take a dominant position on any practical issue. But the underlying worldview is that Luna is a vital, sentient being whose emotions matter. The idea gets through even though the film never specifically describes it in language. 

That kind of underlying thematic worldview has foundational strength. It is the power not of argument but of peer influence. A story with a complete worldview says something to you while you’re not even listening. It says: “You and I know how things are and how they should be. You and I get it.”

It’s human nature to learn this way. This is how all our personal cultures are built as we grow up. This is how our extended families, our teachers, and our teenage friends influence us in manners, in ethics, in morals, in clothing, in sport – in everything, even while we rebel. 

Stories last. When argument is stilled, what remains is the true narrative of lives themselves: the way someone commits kindness out of instinct and knowledge; the ways an individual shows respect across the walls between cultures, nations, even species; the way you honor the needs of other lives even when those needs cannot be understood. 

The things we do in our own narrative of living and the stories we tell radiate their thematic foundations unspoken, like the worldview in a movie, and effortlessly accomplish that which is so hard to do with fury or partisan eloquence. Stories change human minds.


Maybe that is what we need in these strident times: fewer rants and a lot more stories.