News Column

'Blackfish' leaps from Sarasota to national acclaim

November 17, 2013


Nov. 17--It's probably the most talked-about movie of the year, and maybe the most talked-about documentary in a decade.

But people in the Bradenton-Sarasota area have been talking about "Blackfish" longer than almost anyone else.

"Blackfish," the powerful, infuriating and heartbreaking documentary that aired repeatedly on CNN last month, kicked off the Sarasota Film festival back in April. At the time, few people had ever heard of it, or its director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who attended the festival screening of her film at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Almost no one had seen it.

Now it's the talk of film-lovers, anyone who's even mildly interested in animal rights and animal welfare, and just about anyone who uses social media. The talk can only increase now that's "Blackfish" been released on DVD. It became available last week.

"Blackfish" revolves around Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld in Orlando who has been involved with the deaths of three people.

"This is a film that will change people's lives," Cowperthwaite said, "or at least change the way they think."

It sounds like a publicity line, but the film did exactly that for Cowperthwaite herself. "Blackfish" was not the film she set out to make.

"I did not come from an animal rights activist background," Cowperthwaite said. "This was going to be a film about our relationship with the animals we keep, and SeaWorld was going to be a part of it."

Now that she's made this film, she said, "I am absolutely opposed to using animals for entertainment."

"Blackfish" details the treatment of Tilikum and other killer whales at SeaWorld and other facilities. In talks with former SeaWorld trainers Cowperthwaite quietly offers both a tribute to surprisingly emotional animals and condemnation of human selfishness.

Even before the film aired on CNN, it had such an impact on the few people who had seen it that SeaWorld felt compelled to issue a statement about it.

" 'Blackfish,' like other works driven by the same agenda, ignores the extraordinary benefits to conservation, sci

entific research and education of America's zoo and aquariums," wrote Michael Scarpuzzi, the vice president of zoological operations for SeaWorld San Diego. "But through it all SeaWorld remains the world's most respected marine zoological institution. Our parks are staffed with skilled and caring zoological professionals, all of whom deserve to have their work celebrated, not dishonored by things like 'Blackfish.' "

The SeaWorld statement may be true, but it sidesteps the point of the film, that smart emotionally sophisticated animals shouldn't be kept in pens and forced to do tricks to amuse us. And, in fact, the film portrays SeaWorld as one of the most professional facilities that keeps and breeds orcas.

"Blackfish" has its point of view, and it states its opinion powerfully. Perhaps there's another side to the story; there usually is. But agree or not, "Blackfish" deserves to be seen, just for the sheer emotional impact of its filmmaking.

I spoke to a woman who was in the lobby of a festival screening of "Blackfish." She saw the crowd leaving, but hadn't seen the film herself. She finally saw it on CNN last month.

"Now I know why everyone was crying when they came out," she said.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow


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