Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary “Blackfish” premiered at Sundance back in January, but she’s far from finished with the topic. The film is a startling expose about the problems with keeping killer whales in captivity, told through the story of Tilikum, a bull orca who’s been involved in the deaths of three people. “Blackfish” makes a methodical, damning case against Tilikum’s owner SeaWorld, both in terms of how unsuitable life at these aquatic theme parks is for the animals and in terms of the danger in which trainers have been placed when interacting with unpredictable whales being made to live in unnatural environments. And Cowperthwaite says she’s only scratched the surface, noting that one of the things she’s been told by current and former park employees since the film came out is that virtually all of the sea lions are blind: “There is some PH balance issue with the water that SeaWorld tried to fix but was never successful in fixing.”
SeaWorld refused to participate in “Blackfish,” and instead hired a PR firm to release eight issues the company had with its “misleading and inaccurate” content in the days leading up to film’s premiere, assertions to which the filmmakers were quick to respond. Now “Blackfish” is getting its largest platform yet — the doc will get its television premiere on CNN tonight, October 24th at 9pm ET, followed by a live discussion, moderated by Anderson Cooper, that will include Cowperthwaite, Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, Jack Hanna and an aquarium representative. SeaWorld has, again, elected not to participate.
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Indiewire caught up with Cowperthwaite in New York earlier this week to talk about the response “Blackfish” has gotten since it first screened.
When you were getting ready to premiere the film, was there a particular goal or hope you had in mind in terms of this issue?
I set the bar pretty low. I think being a documentary filmmaker, you’re excited by the prospect that people might see your film on purpose — actually go to a theater, pay and see it. As a documentary filmmaker you come from humble pie so you don’t imagine that all that many people will lay their eyes on your film and you don’t imagine necessarily going to change things, but that’s the whole point of why you do what you do. Which makes it kind of a hard career choice, because it doesn’t always work.
Were you surprised at all along the way about the reactions you got?
The primary reaction is definitely shock. Everybody is as shocked as I was when I first learned about this and started making this film. I have to remember I had two years to process my shock and I give audiences 80 minutes. It’s a rough ride and yet it seems as though almost everybody outside of the world of activists and marine biologists didn’t know what was really going on behind the curtain at SeaWorld. I stood on their shoulders while making this film. They’ve known a good portion of these truths for decades and they still see 11 million people going to SeaWorld every year.
You have many interviews with former trainers in the film, some of whom were initially worried about appearing. Have more people since then come out and talked with you about their experiences?
Yeah. Anonymous people have called me inside of the park who still work there, not even anonymous people in some cases, and basically say “Everything in your film is correct and yet you barely scratched the surface.” There are times where you get discouraged because you wonder if you can dot your i’s and cross your t’s and do everything right and just have irrefutable facts in your film and Seaworld can still come after you just to make you squirm. That is scary. I have a family and they can drain my bank account in a day. There are times where all the travel, all the being away from the family — and this is not a lucrative industry for filmmakers, documentary — you wonder why you are doing it. Then you get a call like that from inside the park, saying “Just keep going. Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.” That’s amazing.
SeaWorld did not agree to your request for interviews in the film, but did hire a PR firm to put out messaging when it opened. Did you expect something like that to happen?
I thought they would be quiet. They had been quiet for so long, I guess I imagined they would be quiet forever, just not to draw anymore attention to the film. But they’ve gone public, their stock, so there is word out there that their investors said “Whatever you’ve done before, you can’t do that right now. This movie is damning. It’s bigger than you think it is and you got to debunk as much as you can.”
They tried but, unfortunately, the facts of the film are irrefutable. Anybody can look any of this stuff online any day of the week. Their challenges to the film were very easy for us to debunk.
It seems rare to me, a company doing that in response to a documentary.
It’s pretty rare. It’s less rare than it used to be. People came after “Gasland.” I think people came after “Crude.” But McDonald’s never touched “Super Size Me.” They just started serving apples.
Right — “We just thought we’d do it. It’s not related to anything else that’s happening out there.”
“We were on the track of doing that.” I actually thought the most amazing thing SeaWorld could have done would had been to come out and said “Yes. This whole time we were actually fixing things. We were going to build sea sanctuaries and release a bunch of our whales to sea sanctuaries anyway. So you’re silly. We are so ahead of the curve.” That would de-tooth “Blackfish” more than anything else, but they did the opposite. They’ve said, “We’re perfect. We do everything great and we’re going to keep doing it.”
One of the counterarguments that I see the most, even from people who might not otherwise be sympathetic towards SeaWorld, is the idea of their creating good will toward and an interest in marine biology.
I’m of the personal opinion now, having talked to a bunch of people who want to be trainers, that when you leave Shamu Stadium, you don’t go become a marine biologist. You don’t start giving to conservation of whales in the wild. When you go to Shamu Stadium, you want to come back to Shamu Stadium. Not only that, there is a direct correlation between going and seeing whales at Shamu Stadium and wanting to become a trainer. That is indisputable.
So in that way, you can actually say SeaWorld simply propagates it’s own business model. It doesn’t encourage us to think about animals in the wild where you’re going to be studying them from afar, when you’re not going to be swimming with them, trying to bond with them. It’s two different ways of thinking. The people who go and see Shamu, they continue to desire a close experience. They want to look at a whale and they want that whale to look back at them. So I actually think it does the opposite.
The film is about how inappropriate an environment SeaWorld is for these animals, but it’s also work safety and misinformation given to the trainers. I know OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] fined SeaWorld thirty thousand dollars or so this summer, which seems very minor on the scale of what SeaWorld is making, and the film focuses on the case that required the company to put a barrier up for trainers. Where does it stand now? How much power does OSHA have to protect trainers?
The case is being appealed and I think some of the arguments will be put forth on November 12th, which is the same day our DVD comes out, which is interesting. It is OSHA’s decision, basically the judge’s decision, to pull trainers out of the water, it absolutely makes trainers safer, without question. The proximity issue is gone. But, SeaWorld is appealing that. They want to get trainers back into the water and they basically said OSHA was ignorant in their ruling because they don’t understand killer whales, which is the crux of their argument.
CNN’s a great platform for documentaries, but also one that puts them into a different context than, say, a theater. You’re going up next to the news. What are your thoughts on having the film be put in that kind of context?
It’s so exciting for us. In the theater, a lot of times, the audience is self-selected. They are already going to see a documentary that challenges some of the ideas they have, and they are open to learning more information. What I think is exciting about CNN is having someone who has given no thought to animals whatsoever backing into the issue — stumbling across a documentary and being drawn into maybe some trainer accident or some interview and suddenly backing into the whole issue. So for me, it’s just a dream come true. It’s what you aim for in documentary.