The 2013 Sarasota Film Festival opened last night with Blackfish, directed and co-written by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Blackfish played before a packed house at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The film had previously wowed the audience at Sundance, and the SFF crowd was more than willing, no, make that eager to give the film’s principals a standing ovation at the conclusion of the Q & A which followed the showing of the film. Magnolia Pictures has picked up the film for a wider release this summer.
Blackfish is a documentary about Tilikum, a 12,000 pound orca, who has lived most of his life in captivity. He works, in seeming perfect harmony, with his trainers, performs for adoring audiences, and is also a veritable cash-cow for the sea park that owns him. He’s also killed several of his trainers.
Cowperthwaite tells the story of Tilikum with only one ‘actor‘, and that is Tilikum himself. The rest of what we see and hear are archival footage, and interviews and talks with a number of former orca trainers, sea park employees, and various marine experts.
While the film cannot be called a tense thriller, it is certainly gripping, riveting, and provocative in the sense that as you watch, and learn, you experience an emotional ride.
As the film opens we hear what was the actual phone call made from the marine park to an emergency services call center. ‘A whale has eaten one of his trainers‘. Now that has to get your attention.
From there we learn about how these whales are captured in the wild. It isn’t a pretty story. The whale ‘hunter’ on screen said that easily – the hunting and capturing of baby whales – was the worst thing he has ever done in his life.
From there we move on to the experiences of actual folks who worked at SeaWorld and other marine parks with the orcas. They’re just normal folks, like you or I, but these are people who experienced the thrill of seeing performing whales as children, and then decided as adults to work in the industry.
Yes, it is an industry – a multi-billion dollar industry – and the corporations involved, vigorously defend themselves against the outraged cries of the animal activists.
But the people interviewed on-screen in Blackfish paint a different story for us. The lives of these orcas are anything but fun and games. From their capture and separation from their families, to their work and training, and their down time, when they’re not in the stadiums working, we see a part of the story that most of us have never considered.
Whales are sentient creatures, very sociable and intelligent. They are emotional creatures, and they communicate within their own pods, or extended family groups with their own languages. And in their own way, they communicate with those they work with.
In Jaws, Robert Shaw as Quint told us: Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark… he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be living.
By the way, Quint’s boat, in Jaws, was named Orca.
But we hear from an orca trainer: You can tell some one is home.
These orcas can wag their tails, nod their heads, and give all sorts of physical behavioral signs that they are on the same page as their trainers.
But their lives are stressful. The training includes rewards, and affection, but also includes such things as isolation, food deprivation, as well as disagreements and physical attacks from other orcas living and working in the same facility.
The orcas do a couple of shows a day, and when their day is done, they are held in separate holding pens – a twenty by thirty enclosure. The equivalent of solitary confinement for up to 14 hours a day.
It is not the least bit surprising, that orcas have issues. In the pictures (near the top, and on the right) of Tilikum, you can see how his dorsal fin is flopped over. This happens often for whales in captivity, but rarely for whales living freely.
But getting back to Tilikum, SeaWorld defends itself by claiming that the deaths were trainer errors, or accidents. In short they see no problems. But the former SeaWorld trainers and employees tell a different story. They say they no longer can remain silent. They no longer are willing to buy into the company line. They claim they’ve been deceived, lied to, and misled repeatedly.
OSHA is an agency within the Department of Labor. OSHA is an acronym for Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and they’ve gone head to head with SeaWorld. A battle that continues to this day. A Florida judge issued a ruling which is a ban that will prevent trainers from performing in the water with orcas. SeaWorld has filed an appeal to overturn this ruling.
This what Blackfish is about, and Cowperthwaite has given us a film that is bold, and forceful, and makes you think.
Is it right to take animals from their natural habitat and use them as entertainers?
Seeing them in their natural world is where they should be seen. By the way – there has never been a reported case of an orca, anywhere in the world, either killing or harming a human being while in his natural world – the seas and oceans of this planet.
One trainer stated in the Q & A about how happy he was when he first started to work as a trainer. It was his life’s ambition, and how thrilling it was to be able to work doing something he loved. He said, “I was the happiest guy. But what about the whales. This is not what they want. This is not what they want to be.”
Cowperthwaite, herself a mother of twin boys, stated that she took her own children to see the whales, and while the kids loved the experience, she had doubts about it. She said “I couldn’t quite put my finger on it – but something about it felt wrong.”
Then she read an article about it in Outside Magazine written by Tim Zimmerman called Killer in the Pool. The article was about trying to make people understand that Tilikum’s life resulted in the death of orca-trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Zimmerman and Cowperthwaite teamed up, and this documentary film is the result.
To be fair, as gripping and as powerful of a film statement that this documentary is – it is a bit unbalanced. People still working within the industry would not talk to Cowperthwaite. They feared reprisals including the loss of employment. But more importantly SeaWorld itself refused any and all opportunities to be interviewed for the film.
So of course the film is one-sided. But still, it is so powerful.
Former trainer Samantha Berg, now 44 and owner of an acupuncture firm in Alaska, took a job as a trainer in 1993 at $7.50 an hour. And she was thrilled to have the job. As she described it she totally bought into the company’s line and position. But Dawn Brancheau’s death gave her cause for concern.
When asked in the Q & A if there’s been any personal fallout over her participation in the film, Berg responded – Yes – I lost a couple of dozen Facebook friends.
Cowperthwaite herself told the audience at the SFF: “Making the film was like walking on a tightrope and a fine line. But I just pointed the cameras in the right direction. But if these people [the former trainers who participated in the film] had not been honest, I would have had nothing.”
As for those of us who have seen the film at Sundance, and now the Sarasota Film Festival, I am sure we can agree that is was a special and unforgettable movie. The questions asked, and the facts and opinions presented by the film, will resonate within me for a long time. I am calling this film a must see and don’t miss it when it is released this summer.