In the same way Super Size Me changed the way people looked at Big Macs, Food, Inc. changed the way people thought about what they eat, and Gasland made people question fracking, here comes Blackfish, a movie focused on SeaWorld's treatment of its man-killing killer whale Tilikum. As you might guess, it is a movie that SeaWorld is trying its best to convince you not to see.
"Instead of a fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading and, regrettably, exploits a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau's family, friends and colleagues," reads a statement from SeaWorld quoted this morning by ABC News. It's the second response SeaWorld has made to Blackfish, which opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend. On Saturday, in seven days—they released an eight-point rebuke of the film this past Saturday.
The magnitude of that response is odd, considering that companies usually do not put a lot of effort into putting out whatever fires documentaries might make. "It's rare that corporations targeted in documentaries hire a film publicist to make sure that critics and journalists are informed of the company's response to a film," as IndieWire's Bryce Renniger notes, explaining that McDonald's never did any damage control when the highly negative Super Size Me opened. Well, SeaWorld isn't following McDonald's blueprint of ignore and forget.
Ironically enough, SeaWorld's response is probably the best thing to happen to Blackfish. Think about it: Blackfish is not a summer blockbuster, it's not a film that's been talked about in mainstream circles (until now), and yet SeaWorld is making a big stink of it. There may not be a lot of people who were aware about Blackfish, but there are plenty of people who read ABC News. That means that, most likely, there are now a lot more people who are interested in the tiny film that's irking SeaWorld. And maybe the reason SeaWorld is so eager to combat the movie's message is because that message of Blackfish is so powerful.
The movie, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, focuses on Tilikum, the orca who fatally attacked trainer Dawn Brancheau, the way her Brancheau's death was handled and how American society never really addressed how killer whales like Tilikum are treated in captivity. In the wake of Brancheau's death, SeaWorld offiicals cynically blamed Brancheau's attack on her ponytail, conveniently disregarding the fact that Tilikum was responsible for the deaths of two other humans. "There have been four deaths involving killer whales in captivity, and Tilikum has been associated with three of them," ABC News reported.
Cowperthwaite believes that the answer isn't in ponytails, but, rather, how Tilikum was treated after he was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. "He is sort of taken from his mother at this very young age and then he's dumped in this park called Sealand of the Pacific and is beat up on consistently because ... he's always a subdominant male, he's always trying to figure out his place in the social order and the other two females there just kind of bully him consistently," Cowperthwaite told reporters, and she stresses in her film that his treatment in captivity is the reason Tilikum lashed out. "There is no documented case of a killer whale ever killing anybody in the wild. It's only in captivity where these incidents have happened," Cowperthwaite told reporters.
And its led to this point and counterpoint debate between SeaWorld and the people behind Cowperthwaite's film:
The assertion that Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau because he was driven crazy by his years in captivity. Tilikum did not attack Dawn. All evidence indicates that Tilikum became interested in the novelty of Dawn’s ponytail in his environment and, as a result, he grabbed it and pulled her into the water.
Although eye witness accounts and a video of events just prior to the take-down seem to strongly contradict the notion that Dawn was pulled in by her ponytail, it is most important to note that according to SeaWorld’s own Management during courtroom testimony, Tilikum was desensed to ponytails and therefore did not find them a novelty. The brutal nature of the prolonged, aggressive attack and the facts in the autopsy strongly suggest that Tilikum’s behavior was anything but novel curiosity. These facts were internally corroborated by senior level training staff at SeaWorld.
The question for SeaWorld is whether the film will dissuade them from visiting. So far Cowperthwaite's film has its supporters, enjoying a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. "[T]he impression the film leaves is of a deep-pocketed institution that, for all its claims of humane and professional treatment, tolerates practices that are fundamentally at odds with the animals’ well-being and refuses to accept any portion of responsibility," writes Variety's Justin Chang. That's not the impression SeaWold wants to convey.
Here's the full trailer for Blackfish: