In 2010, Tilikum, a killer whale performing at SeaWorld in Orlando, killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, at left, read news stories about the incident and set out to make a documentary about how it could have happened. The result is Blackfish, a disturbing, provocative film that has been nominated for an Oscar and is getting a wider audience now that it is available on Netflix. In interviews, Cowperthwaite has explained how she came to make the documentary and what she hopes to achieve with it.
This a subject that flies under the radar. What made you decide to devote a couple of years to making a film about it?
I don't come from environmental activism; I'm a documentary filmmaker. But I'm also a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld. So I couldn't have been more ignorant about the situation there. I was confused by this tragic story, when a top-level trainer was killed by a killer whale. I knew that they are intelligent animals, that they swim with trainers on a daily basis, so I couldn't understand what had gone wrong. My point of entry was really this trainer-killer whale relationship. I wanted to ask a philosophical question, and try to explore our relationship with our animal counterparts on this planet. But as a result of some digging, I discovered some shocking information, and I soon realized I would be making an entirely different film.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about wild orcas while making this movie?
It's scary how little I knew. Once I started filming, I couldn't believe several things: that they can live to be 100, that males live with their mothers their entire lives, that there's every indication that they speak different languages, but I think the most amazing fact I learned was that they have a part of the brain that we don't have — a part that we can't even identify. This suggests that they sense, understand and even feel more than we do. It still blows me away to think about it.
Were you surprised about the reactions you got?
The primary reaction is definitely shock. ... 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.
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?
They tried but, unfortunately, the facts of the film are irrefutable. Anybody can look up any of this stuff online any day of the week. Their challenges to the film were very easy for us to debunk.
What were some of the aspects you had to leave out?
Well, I left them out because they're not necessarily palatable to most people, but there's a lot of information about the artificial insemination process. We touch upon that but we don't really get into the truth behind the captive breeding program. It's incredibly disturbing.
The videos of all the accidents are horrific but you really keep it from being exploitive. What was your approach to that footage?
I knew, for one, the footage of Dawn Brancheau being killed, SeaWorld has that footage but it is locked up in a vault for nobody to ever see. The family is fighting very hard to keep that video private and never in public, and I support that. I want this to be a film that children can see and there's really virtually nothing you can learn from seeing that footage that you can't learn from just simply reading the autopsy report. I've got to live with this film and I never ever wanted it to be gratuitous.
Do you want SeaWorld to completely end the inhumane treatment of animals with the existing crop?
I do believe that we need to stop the captive breeding program for killer whales. One thing I'm advocating for, and I think the folks behind Blackfish are advocating for, is the idea of sea sanctuaries. You cordon off part of an ocean cove with a net and retire animals into that ocean cover. A lot of these animals cannot be thrown back in the ocean. They don't know how to hunt. A lot of them, their teeth are drilled out or broken from biting on steel gates. A lot of them are hopped up on antibiotics. They wouldn't necessarily survive in the open ocean but they could survive in sea sanctuaries where people could monitor their health.
What basic message would you like people to take away after watching Blackfish?
I can only hope that after seeing Blackfish, if you go to these parks, you're no longer making a passive decision. You're not being lured by the iconic symbol of a happy Shamu. You're now an actively thinking consumer. You now know the truth.
You mentioned that this project began with taking your children to SeaWorld. Have they now seen their mother's film?
Yes, they have. I have twin sons, who were probably 4 when we went to SeaWorld. They are 7 now, and were very angry that people would take the calf, the baby, from the mom. And when the whale (in another case at SeaWorld) is pulling down the trainer over and over again, they wondered why the whale was mad. They instantly made the jump that she would not have done this normally, that she was driven to do this.
This Q&A was compiled from interviews Cowperthwaite gave to Craveonline.com, the New York Times, Indiewire.com and Takepart.com.