In a desperate move to save its $2-billion-year business, SeaWorld launched an attack against the new movie Blackfish, calling the Sundance-lauded documentary “dishonest” and “misleading” before its theatrical premières in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto Friday.
Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite says she was expecting blowback from the corporate theme park. She just expected it sooner, mostly because her eye-opening documentary stands a very good chance of putting SeaWorld out of business.
Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a 5,400-kilogram orca linked to the death of three people, the details of which remained rather sketchy until Cowperthwaite decided to dive into a bloody pool of controversy, commerce and human-animal dynamics.
The results of her inquiry are dramatic and feature some of the most horrific footage you may see this summer. From never-before-seen images of trainers being dragged underwater by the orca, to disturbing footage of killer whale captures, Blackfish is making a splash big enough to transform public opinion about orca shows, as well as all animal captivity.
Cowperthwaite says she is not an activist, and had no intention of proselytizing when she set out to make her heart-wrenching feature. A veteran director who has worked with ESPN and National Geographic, she says she just felt there was a compelling story to tell in the wake of Dawn Brancheau’s death in February of 2010.
Brancheau was a veteran trainer who was scalped, dragged and finally killed by Tilikum after a “Dine with Shamu” show. According to the 911 call we hear in the opening frames of the film, the whale also ate her arm.
“I had a burning question: Why would a 15-year veteran SeaWorld trainer come to be killed by a highly intelligent animal?” Cowperthwaite says.
“You know? She’d worked with the whale for years. You hear of pitbulls mauling other people but not their masters, so why would a whale bite the hands that feeds it? That was my entry point into the whole thing.”
Within a few hours of starting her research and reading a magazine feature about Tilikum, Cowperthwaite discovered it was not the first time the orca had a fatal encounter with humans.
In 1991, swim champion and part-time whale trainer Keltie Byrne was killed after she slipped into the water at Victoria, B.C.’s Sealand, Tilikum’s first caged experience after being captured as a four-year-old in Iceland.
The whale dragged Byrne underwater several times before an audience of shocked visitors, many of whom had never been interviewed before — but are given a chance to share their story in Cowperthwaite’s film.
The official cause of death was drowning, but there was a lot of confusion over exactly what happened, and whether the whale was simply trying to “play” with Byrne, or had some kind of lethal intent.
The incident led to the closure of Sealand and Tilikum was moved to Orland shortly afterward, where he was supposed to have a non-performing role and improved living conditions.
Eight years later, Daniel Dukes was found dead on Tilikum’s back, naked, with his genitals bitten off. According to SeaWorld, Dukes hid in the park, waited until it closed, and took a skinny dip in Tilikum’s pool without knowing the risk.
The event was written off as death by misadventure, but Brancheau’s death 11 years later prompted an inquiry and a lawsuit on behalf of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The judicial proceedings brought SeaWorld’s private video footage into the public domain, giving Cowperthwaite ample access to the breathtaking, and frequently horrific, images that make up Blackfish.
But the film is not a reality-TV-styled shock fest: In addition to the shots of Tilikum yanking other trainers into the water, Cowperthwaite also includes interviews with fishermen who capture whales for a living, several retired SeaWorld trainers and bona fide scientists and cetacean specialists who shed light on the ocean’s No. 1 predator.
“No one currently working at SeaWorld was permitted to speak with me,” Cowperthwaite says. But those she did interview conveyed a great sense of relief.
“It was like I was taking confession,” she says. “People have been carrying these stories for years, and this was a chance for them to get it out.”
Since SeaWorld issued its statement against the film, even more former SeaWorld employees have come forward, Cowperthwaite says.
“Some people have been waiting to speak their truth for a long time, and this is a very important movie for them,” she says. “I think SeaWorld is just looking to sow a seed of doubt because they have to. But I wonder if they even saw the whole thing, because some of the points they argue aren’t even included in the movie.”
Besides, Cowperthwaite never set out to hurt the company. She really believed she would have the park’s co-operation when she set out to chronicle the sad saga of Tilikum. Yet, the more she dug, the more resistance she encountered and the disconcerting the story became.
“There were so many things I didn’t include because they took us away from Tilikum, but they were very disturbing and could have easily loaded the film and turned it into a piece of activism — which was never my intent,” she says.
A sense of communal culpability permeates every frame because the more we learn about orcas, the more we realize how smart and special they really are. Cowperthwaite interviews a neurologist who points out orcas have a limbic system far more advanced than Homo sapiens, suggesting killer whales have a highly developed emotional consciousness.
“The evidence suggests orcas actually feel more than us,” Cowperthwaite says.
The most disturbing image in the movie isn’t the attacks, but the image of a mother orca after being separated from her baby. In the wild, babies never leave their mother’s side. But at SeaWorld, offspring are moved if they get in the way of the show.
“The animals are worth millions of dollars,” Cowperthwaite says. “It’s a big business, and one that I admit to supporting before I made this movie. I took my kids to see orca shows. And they laughed when they get splashed, but I think, somewhere deep down, you always feel it’s not right. We just don’t think about it.”
For Cowperthwaite, the most difficult scenes involved the separation sequence. “I think no matter where you stand on the whole issue of animal captivity, you can’t watch that scene of a mother being separated from her calf and think it’s OK. For me, as a mother, that was the hardest stuff to watch.”
SeaWorld refused to be interviewed for the movie, but in a move that surprised the investment community, the $2.3-billion company went public earlier this year, just three weeks before Blackfish’s Sundance premiere.
“The timing is a little odd,” Cowperthwaite says. “But I never started out thinking I wanted to shut SeaWorld down. I’m not an activist. I am a storyteller. And to me, this was a classic narrative with a 12,000-pound protagonist swimming right at the centre.”
And what kind of protagonist did Cowperthwaite capture?
“I think Tilikum is a pleaser. I think he is confused, left out, frustrated and incredibly, incredibly lonely.”
Tilikum remains in captivity in Orlando, where he performs daily, and is used as the theme park’s “orca sperm bank,” siring most of the theme park’s captive whales.
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