Azarian's goal was not to reach animal-rights activists with his PSA, but a wider audience of people who may not know the general similarities between humans and orcas: high-intelligence, close family groups, and intense sociability.
Save Lolita is airing Thursday, January 31st at the 3rd Annual New York Wildlife Conservation Film Festival. Ahead of its showing, Azarian answered some questions from Mongabay.com about the film and his career. Azarian has had an eclectic career working on commercials, music videos, and a number of PSAs.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL AZARIAN
Still from Save Lolita. Image courtesy of Underdog Entertainment.
Mongabay.com: What is your background?
Daniel Azarian: I’m a commercial director and filmmaker. I produced the Save Lolita Public Service Announcement (PSA) that is a selection at this year’s WCFF. I graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and got my start in the industry working at Warner Brothers, marketing Warner Home Video releases, including the home video release of the original Free Willy film. I’ve directed commercials for such brands as Scotch-Brite, 3M and Horizon Organic. I live in New York City.
Mongabay.com: How long have you been making films? What are some other examples of your work?
Daniel Azarian: I’ve been officially making films since early 2000. I directed and produced the award-winning shorts Nihilistic Chick (an official selection at the Clermont Ferrand Film Festival, France) and Sociopath (Official Selection: IFP Market). I produced and directed the sci-fi commercial Bulletproof, which won the Silver Telly Award and the recent music video Teenage Popstar Girl, which was featured on AOL Music and won at this year’s Robot Film Festival. I also produced and directed several PSAs including the Bullying is Violence PSA for the Anti-Violence Project featured on Perez Hilton.com, and Free Morgan for the Free Morgan Foundation, concerning another captive orca in Spain.
Mongabay.com: Why did you choose Lolita as the topic of your film?
Daniel Azarian: I happened to watch the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove that completely opened my eyes to the brutality of the captive whale and dolphin industry. The movie struck such a personal cord, it simply was unfathomable to me that this was going on and that the marine park industry was so involved. The film stayed with me for a long time, it was hard to stop thinking about it. Then, with the rest of the world, I learned of Tilikum, the captive orca who killed his trainer in 2010, as it was all over the mainstream news. I never really thought much about orcas at marine parks until this media event, but I was curious, so I began to watch a lot of videos of captive orcas on YouTube, which led me to videos of another captive orca in Miami named Lolita. I researched all I could find about her story. What I uncovered was heartbreaking.
A four-year-old killer whale named Tokitae was brutally captured from her mother (who happens to be still alive, currently living in the waters of Washington state) back in 1970 and taken to live in a small concrete tank at the Miami Seaquarium, where she was renamed "Lolita." She is 22 feet long living in a tank that is 35 feet wide and only 20 feet deep in the center. It’s basically the size of a hotel swimming pool. She’s been living there for the past 43 years. The dimensions of her tank appear to be in violation of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that the USDA is in charge of enforcing. To this day, the AWA has not been enforced with regard to Lolita’s tank size. Lolita’s natural family, known as the southern residents, is one of the most studied groups of killer whales in the world. A retirement plan for Lolita proposed by the Orca Network would place her in a transitional coastal sea pen sanctuary in her native waters, where she would be rehabilitated under human care, then given the choice to go back to open waters if it's deemed safe. Many organizations are willing to help implement it, but the Seaquarium’s owners have so far rejected the idea. To keep such a beautiful, intelligent and social creature, that normally would swim hundreds of miles a day with her family and extended family, isolated in a tiny pool for 43 years seems inhumane to me, and I would hope for others as well. It was then that I put the wheels in motion to create this PSA.
Mongabay.com: What is the plot of the film?
Daniel Azarian: The 90-second PSA aims to show the plight of Lolita through human eyes, as if she were a kidnapped child, which in essence is exactly what she is. I wanted to target a wider audience that normally wouldn’t be concerned about captive orcas, and put them in the orca’s point of view. I think if more people were aware of how intelligent these animals are, and how their life truly is in captivity, they would not support it.
Mongabay.com: What was the most exciting or interesting part of making the film?
Daniel Azarian: The most interesting part of making this PSA by far was learning about killer whales! Their life in the wild is so fascinating, awe inspiring and honestly, totally cool. They are deeply intelligent and their social lives are incredibly complex. Most male killer whales stay with their mothers their entire lives. I don’t know many people that would want to live with their own mother their whole life, so that says a lot about an orca’s family loyalty! The most intriguing fact I learned is that each orca population around the world has their own dialect and culture. Resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest eat mostly salmon, orcas in New Zealand eat stingrays, orcas off the coast of South America beach themselves to eat seals, and so on. This kind of geographic-specific learned behavior can only be attributed to advanced intelligence and awareness.
I’d also like to add—many people say that keeping orcas captive is educational, and that they inspire young children to learn. I would say to that, "What about dinosaurs?" Children are very much inspired by dinosaurs and will learn everything they can about them, especially today, in a world of IMAX films, Animal Planet, and the Internet. Show me one child that was inspired by a dinosaur by seeing it held captive. If someone knows of such a child, please drop me a line, I’d love to talk to them.
What it boils down to is this—orcas are like us in many ways. Their intelligence, which scientists are just beginning to understand, is exceedingly advanced, their brains are exponentially much larger than ours, their social lives are so intrinsically part of their nature (in fact, many experts are now saying they are even more social than humans), and they are completely aware of their surroundings and their life. The time has come for us to evolve and realize it is no longer ethical to keep these sentient creatures in what basically amounts to a sea circus.
Mongabay.com: What draws you to the natural world?
Daniel Azarian: What draws me to the natural world, and animals in particular, is that we can’t truly communicate with animals the way we can communicate with each other, in that we never really know what’s going on in an animal’s head. I think it is the unknown that pushes us to try to understand the natural world more deeply.
Mongabay.com: What impact do you hope this film will have?
Daniel Azarian: I hope more of the general public will make a truly educated decision before buying a ticket to a facility that displays whales and dolphins. A lot can be said for transparency in the care of these animals (most of the medical records and history of these animals are kept from the public), the enforcing of the AWA and various laws, and creating more comprehensive and effective legislation, but the bottom line is, if people don’t buy a ticket, the practice will stop. Plain and simple.
Mongabay.com: Is this the debut? Are you planning to show it elsewhere?
Daniel Azarian: Save Lolita premiered at the first Hamptons Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, and was a finalist at the Blue Ocean Film Festival (BLUE) this past September in Monterey, CA. Additionally, it garnered two Telly Awards in the public service and non-profit categories, and recently screened this past November at the NASCAR Ford Championship Weekend in Miami, Florida.
Mongabay.com: What's next on your agenda?
Daniel Azarian: My work from both the Save Lolita and Free Morgan PSAs has led to several ocean-themed endeavors I’m currently developing with other producers. One is a fairly large, family-oriented project that concerns orcas and the other is an action-packed ocean docu-style adventure show. In non-ocean news, I’m also producing a fantasy feature film that deals with a teen main character who is an underdog. My company is called Underdog Entertainment, so whether the underdog is a child being bullied, an orca in need, or a fictional persona, it’s the struggle of the underdog that interests me as a creative producer and as a person. In fiction, the underdog usually wins out at the end. Let’s hope the same can be said for our real life ocean friends.
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