In 2010, Tilikum, a bull orca, or killer whale, performing at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at the end of a show. Like many other people, the director Gabriela Cowperthwaite read news stories about the incident and wondered how it could have happened; unlike everyone else, she decided to investigate, and kept at it until she had finished a film, “Blackfish,” which has now been shortlisted for the Oscar in the documentary feature category.
Ms. Cowperthwaite, 42, came to documentary filmmaking via an unusual path. She was studying for a doctorate in political science at the University of Southern California when she took a course on the subject “to help my dissertation,” she said, and “absolutely fell in love with the medium.” Over the past 15 years she has directed, written and/or produced nearly a dozen documentaries, mostly for cable television channels like National Geographic, Animal Planet, ESPN and the History Channel.
Documentaries Post!!! Any rec's? I'm watching The Act Of Killing Now:(
Like “The Cove,” a documentary about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan that won the Oscar for documentary feature in 2010, “Blackfish” immediately provoked controversy when it was released last summer. Ms. Cowperthwaite talked recently by telephone about that, as well as her intentions and methods in making the film. Here are edited excerpts from that interview:
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.
Periodically we hear stories from circuses about lions that turn on their trainers, or from Las Vegas shows where tigers do that. Why was it so surprising to you that this would happen at SeaWorld?
I did not know a lot about killer whales, but I knew they were sentient and very intelligent, and that they don’t attack human beings in the wild. Whereas lions and tigers and crocodiles and even elephants, other animals that people encounter in the wild, they can attack. But this doesn’t happen with killer whales. We’re not a food source for them, so it just seemed off to me.
When “Blackfish” was released commercially this summer, SeaWorld sent a letter to film critics contesting specific points in the film, and you have responded to all eight points that were raised. But can you talk a bit about your efforts to get SeaWorld to talk to you on camera while you were making the film?
For about six months, I went back and forth with them. At one point they said it was likely they would grant me an interview. They asked for my questions, which you know as a journalist you never do, but I still gave them my questions. And they asked me who I had interviewed. I did not disclose that, for obvious reasons. I did not want to put anybody at risk. But they finally said no.
You’re on the Oscar shortlist for what is officially called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. From your point of view, what makes this film something more than just an example of dogged investigative journalism and moves it into the realm of art?
I feel like films don’t work when they feel like medicine. I don’t think people want to go see a documentary that tells them how to feel or think. If I just give them information, audiences are too smart for that. They would know I was attempting to serve up a message, and I didn’t want the film to feel manipulative. If I can’t keep people who have never given a thought to animal welfare issues in their seat for 80 minutes, then I’ve failed. And I chose to do that through a very tight, driving and disciplined story.
That was really hard to do because I could have gone in a thousand directions. In fact, I left a lot of information out, which most journalists wouldn’t have advised. But I knew I would lose the audience if I screwed up the pacing because I was shoehorning too many facts in there. Those are all creative decisions, artistic decisions
What are your aspirations as regards the Oscar?
I can’t even believe that I’m here. I didn’t even know if people were going to see this film, because you never know as a documentarian. So it’s downright thrilling to be on the shortlist, surrounded by some of the most transformative documentaries I have ever seen in my life, like “The Act of Killing.” I’m just honored to be at the big kids’ table.