"Blackfish" is a compelling, polemical documentary on the controversy surrounding an accident that occurred in 2010 at SeaWorld, involving a large Orca named Tilikum and the death of senior trainer Dawn Brancheau. The unsettling film does well to trace the history of this form of aquatic entertainment, from the original capture of the animals in the '70s through to modern-day captive breeding grounds. The film also contextualizes the events of 2010 with previous incidents involving the same creature.
Moviefone spoke with the movie's director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, from Los Angeles, where she had just returned from a very un-aquatic trip, having spent the morning enjoying the record heat in the surrounding desert.
Moviefone: What first drew you to the project, of dealing with the story of this Orca tragedy?
Cowperthwaite: I don't come from animal activism, and yet I was baffled and a little bit obsessed with the story of Dawn Brancheau, because it was incredibly sad and confusing for me. I was trying to figure out why someone of that calibre, at the top of her game, would come to be killed by an animal that we consider a friend.
How much did your opinions about the use of animals in such shows change? Are you now considering yourself to be an animal activist, of sorts, with this film?
I don't know that I've earned the stripes to be an animal activist. Not yet, at least. I think of the film and myself as an agent of change. I'm hoping that I have a chance with the film to open people's eyes.
One criticism that could potentially be leveled at the film is that it's relatively one-sided. If you could talk about how strenuously you tried to get representatives from SeaWorld or current trainers into the film to express their point of view...
I did quite tirelessly. I'm a mom who took her kids to SeaWorld, so I thought this incident with Tilikum was a one-off, was a strange aberration.
To be honest, I came from a ridiculously even-keeled side and wanted to go about it that way. I wanted to have SeaWorld's voice in it. So I tried for about six months to get people, but not only did SeaWorld refuse to participate in the film, but also everyone who works [there], they have non-disclosure agreements. I was disappointed, but then I let the story be the guide. I started from 40 years back and tried to tell Tilikum's story through the eyes of the [former] trainers who worked closely with him.
A fact is a fact, and if I could pull back the curtain and illuminate the facts and tell the story and if it makes it look like SeaWorld did not do whatever they could to protect the trainers at any cost, then maybe that's the truth. At some point, as a journalist, you say I want to give five minutes to this side and five minutes to the other side. That is one way of designing your interviews. But there's also the way of just truthfully telling a fact-driven story, and if it turns out that SeaWorld doesn't come out in a great light, then that's what the truth revealed.
I thought it was effective how at the end of your film you included the interviews with many of your participants to show that several of them have had post-employment agendas, they've shown up on news shows advocating particular points of view. At any point during the editing process was there a worry about drawing that fine line between a film being polemical and actually being informative?
It was tricky, all you can really do is give the other side every chance possible. I knew that it wouldn't be the movie it could be if I didn't have SeaWorld's voice represented in it. The only person who I finally got was a former trainer who works closely with SeaWorld but doesn't work there. He was able to provide his voice about SeaWorld and I think it's incredibly valuable. He's courageous because I was honest [with him] that I had filmed [mostly] critics of SeaWorld.
In terms of former trainers, no one gets paid for speaking out. In fact, they were all trying to get jobs in these new careers and they were afraid their current employers would not look upon them fondly. You don't want to hire an upstart. These were people who had worked at SeaWorld for a long time and were still incredibly influenced by what that corporation could do to slander character. They didn't have a political agenda, they just felt that if they were going to leave that park, it was the least they could do to try to tell the truth to keep the trainers safe and to do whatever they could to bring a better life for the whales.
Given that, do you buy the tacit argument that animals performing in captivity is wrong? Or is the larger argument that SeaWorld, in this circumstance, didn't do enough diligence and that this type of performance does play a role, but this was just a "bad fish"?
I came into it thinking that this was a one-time thing and this was one animal that has done this. I was interested in why these things happen in any industry, I wasn't even really focused on captivity. SeaWorld is the biggest fish in the pond, they do it best, they've done it the longest. I think there's something frustrating in an animal who is not meant to be in an enclosed environment, especially a killer whale who can swim up to 100 miles a day and needs to be with social groups, for them to be subjected to these small goofy tricks day after day for food is a recipe for disaster.
So in an ideal world, there would not be a SeaWorld?
In an ideal world, SeaWorld would shift. They have the financial resources to change their facilities into rescue and rehab facilities, to institute sea pens, whereby they could release animals. Obviously the killer whales can't just be dumped back into the ocean, they don't know how to eat live fish, but SeaWorld could cordon off a cove and essentially semi-release animals there so they finally can experience the natural rhythms of the ocean, and can swim much further rather than round and around in these pools.
You can charge people to see them, but it's much more dignified for the animals and safer for people and in all respects would be a fantastic alternative for SeaWorld to consider.
Regardless of your views of anthropomorphizing animals, of whether they emote in the way the neuroscientist in the film suggests, there's a rational divide between the big San Diego institutions, the Zoo, where habitats are created as a way of educating and offering sanctuary, and Seaworld, which is focused on circus-like performance.
Yes, a rational divide is the way to look at it. Is SeaWorld going to shut its doors? No, nor should they. I have to be honest about that. If you were to close all environments, how is anyone going to see a killer whale and come to care in the way that our generation has?
How have people's reactions surprised you?
We've gotten people who were incredibly shocked by what they've learned and people who were happy that we told the story, but we haven't really encountered those folks who are going to side with SeaWorld and say they don't agree with the premises. The film hasn't opened, so I'm waiting for the whole gamut of reactions at that point.
I'm hoping that we engage conversations, all of us. The former trainers and myself have been very open to the idea of SeaWorld shifting. Now I have to become an active consumer rather than a passive one, which is all I really truly advocate for.
Are any of the the former SeaWorld employees still animal trainers?
They aren't really involved in that world, but they don't want to shut the door on their SeaWorld experience until they have a final say about what happens to the whales. It's a concern for all of them.
Were there any specific films that you looked at, documentaries that didn't have anything to do with animals to shape the story?
There are documentaries that inspire me in general. I go back to "Capturing the Friedmans," which came out a few years ago. They stumbled upon a story in the way I stumbled upon this story. One that a lot of people talk about is "Rules of Engagement," about what really happened behind the Waco story. That was one of the first things I watched that made me want to become a documentary filmmaker. I always thought "Blackfish" was closely aligned thematically with "Grizzly Man: -- we obviously went about it in different ways [than Werner Herzog], but that [film] still rocks me to my core. I'm very inspired by the medium overall.
"Grizzly Man" isn't about the nobility of animals, it's about the stupidity of people, the silliness of thinking a wild animal is just a cute plaything to be cuddled or ridden.
I know a lot of folks I come into contact with ask why we're [humans] so evil. I think it's just the opposite, I think we're so insanely curious that when we went about this 40-year mad scientist experiment to put a bunch of killer whales in captivity, we originally were so curious about them and wanted to reach across the species curtain and essentially make friends with this animal. Trainers love the whales, there's no question about that, but you don't see the whales loving them back. You see our desire to master and control, and that's what we're showing off on a daily basis.
"Blackfish" opens in select theatres on Friday, July 19.