The curtain covering the truth behind whale training is pulled back by Blackfish, a gripping documentary from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Using numerous killer whale trainers as prime interview subjects, this documentary speaks to the unnatural treatment of massive animals who are captured for the sake of being stunt-performing stars. By providing the facts without turning the film into a soap box, Blackfish ensures that its viewers will never go to Sea World again. This is Cowperthwaite's second directed feature. She previously helmed the documentary City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story, and has co-produced programs for the History Channel.
In an exclusive interview, I talked to Cowperthwaite about her film, the Avatar-like fascination with Sea World, why some activists are more upset with her than Shamu fans, and more.
Blackfish opens in Chicago on July 26.
There's a scene in a "Simpsons" episode ("Brother from the Same Planet") in which a Sea World-parody is shown, with the subtitle "No longer educational" under the sign. Do you think Sea World customers understand that when they go in, or that they are even encouraged by the lack of educational experience?
I honestly think that you go in wanting to have fun, to kind of be up close to this impossible creature and potentially be in the splash zone, and get really excited about that. I think that people think that experience itself will let you walk away and have a deeper understanding of these animals.
Especially with the phenomenon created by superstar whales like Shamu, it sounds like Sea World offers an Avatar-like spectacle, where people view whales because they think they want to see something beyond a regular reality.
I think that's what it is. For the people who are getting very interested and in love with what goes on to an obsessive degree in Sea World, they are buying into this image that the animal that we are basically reaching across to another species and making a friend. I think they're buying that, that we came across these majestic animals and are loving them. But the trick that makes these people different is that they are sure these animals are loving us back. I think it's a symbiotic relationship, and that's what Sea World is selling. "Our whales are so happy, and we love them. [These whales are] saying yes, and saying no, and doing a few things, and doesn't that look like fun? They love us." That's where the equation is off. We can only know how we feel about them. But do they bond with human beings? Presumably, yes. They are social bonding animals. That's what they do. Is that because we are all they want, or because we are all they have?
This reminds me of pets. Do you have pets?
I have two dogs. And it's tricky because people will be like "what about our dogs?" But we do have to remember that dogs have been domesticated for thousands and thousands of years. Killer whales, a top predator, they've been in captivity for 40. You can't know, you can't equate them.
Do you think the 'Orca' movie had a great impact in instilling that fear that we feel for these beasts? That the stigma from the movies has created this desire to control these animals?
I think that if you go back and watch Orca, the whole premise is that humanity is messed up. You've got to see it. It's not meant to be funny, but now it is so campy that it will be. The whole point is that a human being killed a mother, and the mother was pregnant. And so the entire movie is about the father whale exacting revenge on the guy who killed the mother and following him to the ends of the Earth. It's already speaking to their intelligence. The other side of Orca is that this is some deathly terrifying animal.
When did you record the modern day tour footage taken in Sea World?
One thing we were careful of was that the woman saw I was filming her. There were no hidden cameras ever. It was all very upfront, and the camera was in her face. I just asked the questions, and was never stopped by anyone, and then we just walked away with our footage.
How did you film this segments?
I used a Canon X 10. It's a little larger than your average tourist camera. It's a great camera. It is small enough to not call too much attention to itself. I didn't want to trick them to thinking I wasn't filming them, but I was also sure that I needed ... I had heard that there was misinformation in the park, and I couldn't just say that because maybe they were telling the truth. So I had to go down in present day and see if these facts were still being drummed up, and they were.
What were your experiences or thoughts going back into Sea World? Was that the last time you were in there?
That would have been last year, so yes. It's so hard to explain though. You know when Shamu - I keep saying Shamu - the killer whale says "Yes"? What I learned during production, because I used to think that was kind of cute, is that it's because the trainer puts a fish up here, and then another down here. Looking up, and then down. As soon as I realized that, I started turning my eye on every trick, and second guessing every thing there. Overall all of the sudden it isn't just spectacle, it doesn't speak to seeing love bonds, it speaks to mastery. You just see that we are so dead set on controlling this impossible animal, and that's all you can see. Once you see that, you can't unsee it.
Did you go to the show last time?
Some of this footage was in San Diego. But I had to go see Tilikum in Orlando, and I watched the whole Shamu show. And it just ... your stomach sinks. It's a really strange experience. You're looking around a stadium full of hundreds and hundreds of people, and everyone is smiling. Everyone is screaming with laughter. It's very palpable, the happiness. And it's just, it's so misguided. I don't know. I call it being anesthetized. It's not evil, it's like we instinctively know something is off, but I think we are anesthetized. There's music, there's all this color, and then we see this giant animal.
Do you feel the same way about zoos?
With this in particular, with this film, what I speak about with certainty is animals for entertainment, and in my mind that is the lowest rung of the ethical totem pole. With zoos I don't know enough about them. But I do think that sentient, intelligent animals like elephants or whales should not be in captivity. I do think there are zoos that are serving a species, and are not forcing the animals to work for food. But then there are zoos that are pretty terrible for what I hear. But for me, it's uncharted territory.
How do you discuss this project when being asked what you are working on?
I can't pontificate. For whatever reason, I tell people what I am working on. But in terms of telling people they should and shouldn't do, I can't do that. One, because it's very hypocritical because I was doing it for many years in my life. But two, I also think we have this inner teenager, in which the moment you tell us not to do something, we will resist. Whereas if we can prevent information in a fact driven ways in an 80-minute document where I am in fact pulling back the curtain, if people feel something, they get to own it. It is authentic, and I believe that is where we do our best work. I never wanted this film to seem strident, or prescriptive, I just wanted it seem like this intact truthful document.
Sometimes documentaries can be so one-sided, and general interest in documentaries can suffer from that. Was that a stigma you were trying to work through?
It was. It was on my mind. I didn't want to do that. It's just not my personality. I don't want people to think they're going to my film to take medicine. I want it to be like you're going there, maybe because you think you're going to be entertained, but then you back into all of these questions you are going to ask yourself. I don't want the film to feel like an ethical boxing match.
Have your sons seen it? What were their reactions?
They weren't scared at all. I was afraid that they might be scared by the mother and calf separation. They were angry that people were doing something like that. There was sadness, and some anger.
What interactions have you had at Q&A with people who are against your movie?
The people who have pushed back most have been hardcore activists who wanted a number at the end of the film, who want to know that the film is going to be turning people to their cause. Or, "Why couldn't you make it prescriptive?" There is nothing I can say to that, I think we'll just have to wait and see. There are plenty of people who have been working in that community for a long time, and I stood on their shoulders to make this movie. I just had to do this story the only way I can.
Quick Questions with Gabriela Cowperthwaite
What did you have for breakfast this morning? An omelette, and some green tea.
If you could be somebody else for 24 hours who would you be? I think I'd be Elon Musk or anyone intimately involved with space exploration, or a big wave surfer like Laird Hamilton.
Favorite summer movie/blockbuster? Some splashy thing? I remember sitting in Avatar and being so amazed by just the science of the technology that went into it. I was on the edge of my seat. it was so beautiful to watch. I liked Star Trek Into Darkness.
Favorite fruit? Papaya.
Age of first kiss? I was an early bloomer, probably second grade I think. I had a boyfriend in second grade.
You beat Channing Tatum. Well, it wasn't my idea. It just happened.