Documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite has fifteen-years of experience making documentary films, but her claim to fame at the moment is the riveting, and highly unsettling documentary, Blackfish. With Blackfish inching ever closer to an Academy Award nomination, Cowperthwaite is committed to getting the company at the crux of her movie, SeaWorld, to end their history of capturing and containing killer whales for entertainment value. In doing press for the film, Cowperthwaite sat down with the Awards Circuit to discuss the project, the complex issues at work in telling the story, and what fans can do to voice their displeasure with the company.
Kristen Lopez: It’s awesome to get the chance to talk to you! I love the movie; it’s made me cry twice.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Oh, thank you! I mean, sorry. Sorry, but thank you.
KL: What was the impetus to create Blackfish? Had you been to SeaWorld at all previously?
GC: I am a 15-year documentarian and I was really confused by the death of Dawn Brancheau. I didn’t understand how a highly skilled trainer at SeaWorld would come to be killed by a killer whale. I thought that didn’t happen and that these animals were so highly intelligent they wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds it. I also don’t come from any animal advocacy or activism; I’m not an animal activist. I’m a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld, and so I thought I was doing a documentary about the trainer-whale experience and why people swim with apex predators. When I discovered what was percolating, I was floored.
KL: Did you immediately notice there was something off when you went to SeaWorld with your kids, or did you enjoy it at the time and notice later something was off?
GC: Yeah, I remember feeling what I call a “cringe factor.” My sons and I watched the show and there were moments when I would cringe and think “This feels off to me.” And yet I would look around the audience and everyone is smiling. I would think to myself, “How could something that makes everyone feel so good, be so bad?”
KL: One of several elements I enjoyed was the history and marketing SeaWorld puts into our heads that killer whales are being saved. I grew up watching Free Willy and believing there was this conservation only to look back and notice glaring issues.
GC: Right! It’s so hard to imagine, to really know. I wanted this film to be very nuanced and have all of these moral complexities in it. It was frustrating to discover that the issues are so black and white; that so much of what goes on at [SeaWorld] is wrong in every way something can be wrong. That’s not my instinct as a filmmaker; my instinct is to think they’re more complex and multi-layered. As a filmmaker you’re frustrated, I go “Oh, this is cut and dry.” Unfortunately, some things really are as depraved as they seem.
KL: There are various camps of people who love and hate the movie. You really try to explore both sides of the coin. Some have mentioned you not touching on trainer negligence. Was there anything you did to dispel talks of bias?
GC: That’s the one complex issue I love addressing because it was fascinating to me on a couple different levels. I’m not biased. In fact I tried very hard to interview SeaWorld. I thought they should be a voice in this film and I wanted them to tell me why I was taking my kids there. I imagined there was tremendous good they were doing. In terms of conservation they give .0006% of 1.4 billion dollars of revenue a year, so not even 1% of their 1.4 billion dollars of revenue goes to conservation. I learned when they claim to rehabilitate and release – and they do some of that for manatees and sea turtles; animals that have no entertainment value to them – rescue is actually a backdoor for capturing animals from the wild. It’s a way they can obtain fresh DNA from the wild, which is very important to them since they are hitting a genetic model mix with all the inbreeding they’re doing. They claim they don’t capture from the wild, anymore, but basically they don’t have to capture directly from the wild because they have other countries do it for them. They’re part of a consortium right now trying to import wild-caught Beluga whales from Russia. For every statement they make trying to clear their name, there’s a multitude of even more shocking and sordid facts lying beneath the surface. I’m always being told by people who work inside the park the facts in the film are irrefutable. The problem with the film is I only scratched the surface.
KL: Going back to when I brought up trainer negligence. What were you going to say about that?
GC: I’ve never heard that before. What I learned about the trainers at SeaWorld is they are the people who care about the whales, who feed them, take care of them when they’re sick. They’re paid very little do this and they’re putting their lives at risk on a daily basis for the love of these whales.
KL: You make a point of showing in the documentary these people assume there’s training and they would need a degree to work for SeaWorld and that’s not true.
GC: It’s crazy, but once they get in there they truly are the voice of the whales; the negligence thing is false. You would not find trainers at any of the SeaWorld parks who are not advocates. They put themselves at risk to advocate for the whales. They’re upstarts when they see a whale not treated well. They’re constantly fighting with upper management to give more to the whales, so really they’re the best the whales have within the parks. People say, “If they’re so upset and disillusioned with the parks, why don’t they leave?” What’s fascinating is, very quickly they become disillusioned with the park. But then what happens is they develop a bond with one, sometimes two or more, whales and they’re afraid if they leave no one will take care of their whale as well as they did. In fact, a lot of the trainers who speak out in the film felt they had to speak out to give closure for the whales they feel they abandoned.
KL: I know you mentioned the impetus was Dawn Brancheau’s death and it was risky showing the few seconds leading up to her death. There was a huge outcry after the event of people wanting to see the videos of her demise, which was really bizarre. It’s a morbid question but have you seen additional footage of the day’s events or did you refuse to go so far as to watch additional footage unreleased to the public?
GC: In terms of the video of her dying? Her family has fought very hard to keep that out of the public domain and I support them in that. I would never have put that in my film. I wanted this film to be something my kids could see, for children to see. There was no journalistic issues or obligations I felt I had [in seeing it]. I knew, for a fact, it would never be in my film. Personally, I don’t want to see it. I knew I could understand everything about that day through reading the autopsy report and hearing from people who did see it.
KL: Do you think it was morbidity compelling people who wanted it released? Was there any justification towards releasing it?
GC: Trainers wanted to see it…wanted to know if there was a window of opportunity where [Brancheau] could have changed her whale’s mind. It’s a scary thing SeaWorld does to their trainers, convince them if you’re a well-skilled trainer and you follow a to-do list…They basically convince trainers that there is such a thing as a to-do list of how not to get killed by a killer whale, when the fact is if the whale wants to kill you it will kill you. There was basically no window of opportunity Dawn had to “whale-whisper” Tilikum out of killing her; that was one reason. In terms of anything else, I think it is morbidity. I think it is people wanting to see how aggressive [Tilikum] was, and maybe there is something about human nature where we think we’ll be able to read the mind of a whale and come to understand why it’s made its decision in thinking. SeaWorld will teach that. But in the end, what I gathered was this was a brutal mauling and there was no point of opportunity to escape.
KL: We try very hard to predict animal behavior. The video in the documentary showing another trainer escaping a whale could strengthen the argument that there’s a way to escape that situation, but the point is we can’t predict animal behavior.
GC: Exactly, what the film tries to depict is a history of frustration and a history of what we do in these parks is so unnatural. We’re 100% incapable of giving these animals what they need to survive and thrive in captivity. The film does postulate, in a way, that we see the effects of this frustration. The concept that we know what animals are thinking and we’re able to talk ourselves out of any aggressive incident with a whale is false and a dangerous theory for SeaWorld to promote.
KL: I don’t know if you’ve followed the events with SeaWorld suffering backlash and losing their concert acts out of protest. Are there additional ways people can voice their displeasure or is it simply avoiding the parks?
GC: Yes, just don’t go to SeaWorld. If you want to get more specific, we’re trying to encourage them to end the captive breeding program and with public pressure, and legislation is a natural evolution of these issues, we’ll see the end of killer whales in captivity in our lifetime. And evolve to rehabilitation, to release facilities into sea sanctuaries as the model for the future.
KL: My last question is whether there was anything you left on the cutting room floor?
GC: Hundreds of hours! The hardest thing making a film like this was self-discipline. I didn’t want it to be a bunch of incendiary facts shoe-horned in. I didn’t even touch on the sea lion and otter stadium which is a whole…
KL: Separate documentary in itself?
KL: You think you’ll tackle that in the future?
GC: I have no designs right now. I’m 100% focused on getting Blackfish out the door and making sure it continues to do good work out there.
KL: Thanks so much, Gabriela for taking time out to talk to me!
GC: Absolutely, thank you so much for the opportunity!
Blackfish is available on DVD/Blu-ray now; it’s also available to watch on Netflix Instant