Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry. This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals.
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In the summer of 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a reknowned SeaWorld trainer, was killed by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca. I remember fragments: something about a ponytail, something about her slipping and falling, something about how this almost never happens because in these parks, the animals are happy and the trainers are safe.
But something wasn’t right. Why would a highly intelligent animal attack its trainer – in effect, bite the hand that feeds it? I set out to understand this incident not as an activist, but as a mother (who had just taken her kids to SeaWorld) and as a documentary filmmaker (who can’t let sleeping dogs lie).
I brought Manny Oteyza aboard as the film’s producer and he soon became my right arm. I spoke to Tim Zimmermann, who wrote a phenomenal article about the incident for Outside Magazine, and asked him to be my associate producer. I wrote a treatment and executive producer and long time friend Rick Brookwell put me in touch with first-time executive producers Judy Bart and Erica Kahn, who funded the film. We worked with cinematographers Jon Ingalls and Chris Towey with whom both Manny and I have had a shorthand for decades, and we set out to tell a story. What story? At that point, I hadn’t the foggiest clue.
Thus began my journey of shock and discovery.
I have made tv documentaries for 12 years but Blackfish is my second feature length documentary and one that I call my “labor of tough love.” I can’t say this was an easy film to make. For two years we were bombarded with terrifying facts, autopsy reports, sobbing interviewees, and unhappy animals – a place diametrically opposite to its carefully refined image. But as I moved forward, I knew that we had a chance to fix some things that had come unraveled along the way. And that all I had to do was tell the truth.