When Gabriela Cowperthwaite premiered "Blackfish" at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, everyone knew it was going to be a controversial hit. The filmmaker's exposé of SeaWorld and the global problem of keeping orca whales in captivity contained loads of footage illustrating the animals' hardships while forced to live under grueling conditions in small tanks. More than just a scientific study, however, "Blackfish" had an emotional hook: The 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by stressed orca whale Tillikum. Through various testimonies by former trainers, scientists and others, the movie proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the entire institution of orca whales performing tricks at theme parks is dangerous for both the whales and the people in the water with them.
Or so it might seem. Ahead of its theatrical release and broadcast date on CNN, "Blackfish" was assailed by Seaworld, which took issues with its arguments point by point. However, the attack only served to raise the movie's profile, catapulting onto the national stage. There was a reason why it managed to strengthen the conversation about orca whale captivity: Like the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove," which dealt with the Japanese dolphin slaughtering industry, "Blackfish" takes a known issue and renders it in unfettered detail; like "Super Size Me," it boldly assaults a major, wealthy institution with empirical evidence. Yet neither of those movies also involve the element of human lives being at serious risk. "Blackfish" is as much a warning signal for aspiring trainers as it is for the whales themselves.
From the beginning of production, Cowperthwaite knew she had to take a measured approach. "The movie works because Gabriela's first goal was to make a film that lays out the facts so it becomes the viewer’s choice to be for or against the use of orca whales for entertainment, instead of force-feeding the message, said producer Manny Oteyza. The film is accessible to a wide number of people not just animal lovers, but people who went to SeaWorld as children or parents planning to take their children over the summer and mothers who could relate to the scene where orca calves are separated from their mothers."
The Documentary Bug:
"This is Ernestine returning your call from SeaWorld, where everybody has a whale of a time — except for the whales."
The fallout from Gabriela Cowperthwaite's revealing documentary continues to impact the marine animal park.
SeaWorld said it would change the live orca show at its San Diego park, but not everybody is convinced they are going to do the right thing.