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Cover 08/07/2013

Can Captivity Kill?: New documentary targets SeaWorld

Photo: Courtesy Photos, License: N/A

Courtesy Photos

A penny for your thoughts—where would Tilikum rather be? At SeaWorld or in the wild?

Photo: , License: N/A

But Blackfish, which premiered at Sundance in January and is making its debut in San Antonio at the Bijou on Aug. 9—could bring more weight (and attention) to SeaWorld’s detractors. And clearly, SeaWorld knows it. In an attempt to do damage control before the film was even released, the company hired Manhattan PR firm 42West to help it discredit Blackfish before it got out to the public. In the letter, SeaWorld vice president of communications Fred Jacobs calls Blackfish “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate” and lists multiple complaints about the film. The takeaway is that the movie places its agenda—raising awareness about killer whales held in captivity and how SeaWorld’s policies put trainers in harm’s way—over accuracy. “What Blackfish presents as unvarnished reality is anything but,” the letter insists.

But Blackfish isn’t a film made by animal-rights activists. Rather, it was directed by California filmmaker Cowperthwaite, a veteran documentarian who’s written and produced pieces for National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet and the History Channel. She’s been embedded with the Marines and she’s trained her lens on disasters and kids in inner-city neighborhoods. Despite making what SeaWorld dismisses as an “emotionally moving piece of advocacy,” Cowperthwaite says she never set out to create an activist film. In a director’s interview with Sundance, Cowperthwaite says she wanted to create a “detailed, truthful narrative” that would “show, not tell” her audience a story about the death of Dawn Brancheau. She was drawn to the idea of doing a piece about a woman who dedicated her life to working with animals, only to be killed by one of the killer whales she was devoted to.

“I read everything I could about it, because it was a very tragic but very confusing incident to me,” Cowperthwaite says. “I didn’t know that things like this happened, I guess. I thought that killer whales were loving animals that bonded with their human trainers, and I think that was what confused me, especially when I learned that, you know, the more I read about the incident, the more I realized that this was not an accident. So that was kind of my entry point into making the documentary: Me in search of an answer.”

But she quickly learned that SeaWorld wasn’t interested in giving her any answers. “They had told me that it was likely, at one point, that I would be granted an interview,” Cowperthwaite says, “and I was very excited, thinking this would be a great chance to hear everything from their side of the story.

But they then declined, and I was disappointed.” (SeaWorld’s Jacobs said in an interview that he has “no recollection” of ever promising an interview at all.)

Instead, SeaWorld waited until just before Blackfish opened in theaters and went on the offensive. It dissected the movie, point-by-point, denying some of the film’s key critiques of SeaWorld (one point in dispute: that killer whales live longer in the wild than in captivity, which SeaWorld says is not proven) and even some points that aren’t really addressed in the movie at all—for instance, SeaWorld’s letter denies what it calls the “insinuation that SeaWorld stocks its parks with killer whales captured from the wild,” though the film makes it clear that most of the whales at the parks are captive-born.

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