Revealing the Dark Side of Marine Parks

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Featured in MIFF 2013’s Knight Documentary Competition program, Blackfish, is a riveting documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which will change the way you think about marine parks.  This film is no trumped up horror story fueled by Hollywood brand names and special effects. In this eye-opening film, all the creatures are real, and all seem entitled to the serious chip on their shoulders.

The main character is Tilikum, the SeaWorld Orlando 12,000-pound bull orca whale who, in 2010, killed an experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during a performance. (Tilikum has previously been associated with the deaths of two other trainers.) News reports at the time cast it as a freak accident touched off by her swinging ponytail. That’s just one element of the alleged mythology that this documentary set out to rewrite.

Capturing orcas in the wild

In Blackfish, Cowperthwaite brilliantly demonstrates that this incident of violence is hardly isolated, while exploring the extraordinary nature of orcas, thought to be one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom. The film speaks not only to animal lovers and activists, but to anyone at all who may have been duped by marine theme park propaganda.

There are currently 42 orcas living in captivity in 11 marine parks around the world with 20 orcas at SeaWorld’s three parks, one orca at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, CA and one orca, Lolita, at Miami Seaquarium. 

Dawn Brancheau performing at SeaWorld with Tilikum; orca and trainer

Another relatively recent film about the topic of whales in captivity is Lolita: Slave to Entertainment (2003), by Tim Gorski, about Miami Seaquarium’s Lolita, one of the longest held orcas in captivity, kept in the oldest and smallest orca tank (due to local political issues), maintained with natural seawater drawn from Biscayne Bay.

Throughout the world promotional tour for Blackfish, Cowperthwaite continuously affirmed that during filming and production she repeatedly requested interviews with SeaWorld officials and was flatly declined.  In reaction to the impending release in the US and UK, SeaWorld’s VP of Communications, Fred Jacobs, directly emailed about 50 high profile film reviewers in the US rebutting various points in the film and took examples of allegations in the film and responded with what the company consider as corrections. Click here for assertions and responses.

Lolita’s cage; Halloween performance with Lolita at Miami Seaquarium
Blackfish begins its Miami commercial run on Friday, August 2nd at Regal South Beach, O Cinema Wynwood and AMC Aventura 24.  One of the more significant lines in the film is that “50 years from now we’ll realize how barbaric a time this was.” This idea of really intelligent animals living in captivity for our entertainment needs to start phasing out. It’s not sustainable, whales aren’t happy, and trainers aren’t safe. — Tatyana Chiocchetti

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Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.