Wild Summon: Hundreds turned off seafood after watching confronting documentary

Yahoo News spoke with with filmmakers behind Wild Summon about their thought-provoking new documentary.

Hundreds of moviegoers have vowed to avoid eating seafood after watching a nature documentary about fish. Wild Summon chronicles the perilous lifespan of salmon, but uses computer animation to replace its subject with human-like characters to evoke empathy.

After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the Marianne Faithful narrated natural history fantasy was nominated for a BAFTA and shortlisted for an Oscar. While rubbing shoulders with Hollywood elite has been thrilling for the Wild Summon's husband and wife directors, Karni Arieli and Saul Freed, it’s the audience reaction that had them most excited when they spoke with Yahoo News on Wednesday night.

“On Instagram I’ve had loads of people saying I’ll never eat fish again,” Arieli said. “At the screenings a lot of people come and say I feel bad, I had fish for dinner,” Freed added.

Movie still from Wild Summon shows salmon represented by animated human-like figures look up at light.
Hundreds of moviegoers have vowed to avoid eating a popular menu item after watching a nature documentary about a fish, Wild Summon. Source: Karni Arieli and Saul Freed

Despite the strong audience reaction to the film, its directors aren't vegan and they're not trying to convince anyone to stop eating fish. Rather than feeling bad for eating it, they want viewers to think about the choices they make.

“We try not to be preachy,” Arieli said. “People ask: What do you want people to take away? What do you want them to feel? And I'm like, I just want them to feel. I'm not going to tell them what to feel, that's bad filmmaking.”

How Wild Summon impacted the filmmakers' family

Creating the 14-minute short film impacted the diets of the filmmakers and their family. This isn’t surprising — Korean director Bong Joon-Ho toyed with veganism after making the Netflix action film Okja which included some of the most horrifyingly realistic abattoir scenes in cinematic history.

Wild Summon movie still shows a salmon-human narrowly avoiding being eaten by a bear.
Wild Summon follows a female protagonist from birth to death. Source: Karni Arieli and Saul Freed

While Arieli used to sometimes eat fish, she’s now cut it out altogether and is a committed vegetarian. Freed, who Arieli jokes “will eat anything with a pulse”, continues to occasionally eat fish. But it’s their youngest child who has been most affected by the filmmaking experience – the nine-year-old has stopped eating seafood altogether.

“We went on this boat… and our kid was the first one to catch a fish. And he was so proud. And everyone was like, yay, we're gonna have sashimi on the boat,” Arieli recalled.

“He looked at us and said quietly, I want to throw the fish back in. We stood by him and said, Fine, all these people are going to be disappointed, but we don't give a hoot about them. If you want to release the fish, let's do it.

“There's something about holding a live fish that's flopping around in your hand… he didn’t want to kill it."

Controversial decision to feature humans in documentary

The filmmakers were unaware anthropomorphising fish and animals has been traditionally shunned by the scientific community, so the choice to replace salmon with humans didn’t weigh on them. “We didn’t care. We did what we thought was right, which was create a fish in human form for empathy,” Arieli said.

The film examines the treacherous life of salmon who begin their lives as eggs in tiny streams, and then venture into the ocean. We follow the journey of a female protagonist, and watch as the rest of the school is picked off by bears, birds and fishing vessels. She defies the odds and makes her way back to the river to give birth to a new generation.

"She has to give birth to a new generation and die, so she's a warrior. And we felt that we wanted to give her the respect, and tell the journey through her eyes," Arieli said. "I'm a mother. But I don't see myself often portrayed in films and why not? You know, giving birth is pretty much the most epic thing you can do."

Wild Summon was executive produced by Academy Award-winning director Adam McKay (Don't Look Up) and Kevin Messick. It is showing internationally in cinemas alongside 2024 Oscar nominated films. You can see the full schedule here.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.