Saturday, January 18, 2014

Blackfish Behind the Scenes


Category: Sammi's Interviews, Published on Saturday, 18 January 2014 03:53



Blackfish: a work of personal transformation and courage “People are capable of changing what they do”

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry. This emotionally wrenching story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and the ethics of capturing, breeding, and keeping captive these sentient fellow mammals.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite with Dr John Jett in Park City, Utah
Banned together in the movement called Voice Of The Orcas, are Blackfish Cast and Former SeaWorld Orca Trainers: Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, Carol Ray, Samantha Berg, and Dr. John Jett. Voice Of The Orcas (VOTO) is a group of like-minded individuals working for the betterment of large captive marine mammals, and VOTO provides education and information as to how concerned people can help. The founding members of VOTO have this unified message, 

“Through experiencing captivity first-hand, we came to the conclusion that it is wrong.”

The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2013, and was picked up by Magnolia Pictures, Dogwoof, and CNN Films for wider release, and has since been was released on DVD, Blu-ray Disc, and Netflix.

Gabriela at the Los Angeles Premier
Since it’s release, the film has inspired many people to change their ideas on marine parks and many want to learn more about the conditions and ethics of captivity. From famous celebrities speaking out on Twitter, protests outside venues where whales are held in captivity, to changes to Pixar's upcoming “Finding Nemo” sequel entitled “Finding Dory”. And a wave of activity has also caught the headlines as recording artists and bands scheduled to perform at SeaWorld Orlando in 2014 have cancelled their upcoming gigs, including: Barenaked Ladies, Willie Nelson, Cheap Trick, Trisha Yearwood, REO Speedwagon, Martina McBride, 38 Special, and Trace Adkins. 

I had the opportunity to interview the filmmaker of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and the cast. Here’s what they had to say…

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Filmmaker, “Blackfish”

What was the most important thing you learned from creating this documentary?  

Carol Ray & Gabriela Cowperthwaite in New York City 

I learned that people are capable of changing what they do, how they feel, if you tell them the truth. What does that say about humanity? It says that despite our differences, our impasses, we're all generally looking to be better. I think that's amazing. 

Jeff Friedman,  Manny Oteyza, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, & John Jett under some palm trees in Florida

And what did you learn about yourself through the process?

I think I realized that in this life, I want to leave things better than I find them. I didn't realize until well into the research that I was making a controversial documentary. Once I realized this and recognized the risks of taking on a billion dollar cultural icon, I said, "I can't make this documentary, I have kids." Shortly thereafter, I told myself "I have to make this documentary. I have kids." 

What will you work on next?
Some things are brewing, but right now I'm focused on making sure Blackfish continues to do good work out there in the world.

Former trainers & Blackfish cast Jeffrey Ventre, Dean Gomersall & Carol Ray on a Whale Watching Boat together

Jeffrey Ventre MD, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Specialist

If you could give a direct request to SeaWorld, what would it be?

SeaWorld, please shift your attention from captive breeding to real world conservation. The Southern Resident orca population is endangered partly due to your collections from 1965 to 1976. Use your resources to help restore wild Chinook salmon, the main food of these killer whales. Help educate boaters to give these social creatures the space they need to forage and communicate. 

Jeff &John are on the red carpet for the Sarasota Film Festival; Opening Night at the Van Wezel Performance Art Hall

What can be done now for the orcas in captivity?

In regard to your (SeaWorld’s) current captives, let them live out their lives in dignity, without the circus stunts, pop music, and choreographed tricks. Place fertile females on oral contraceptives, and investigate the notion of sea pens for those animals that may qualify.

Carol Ray MA, CCC-SLP, Speech Pathologist

What does your family think of your involvement in Blackfish and the movement to help orcas? 

I come from a family of animal lovers, and they are very proud of my voice for the orcas and believe real good can come from me sharing my unique experiences. They've been so heartened to see the response to the film, world wide, and they share my hope that we will see an end to captivity in the near future. 

Carol Ray and Samantha Berg at a theater in Hollywood 

What do you hope people learn from watching this film? 

I hope that people gain a better understanding as to why orcas do not belong anywhere but in the wild. I hope people learn that Dawn's (Dawn Brancheau) death was an unnecessary tragedy, as is Tilikum's life. I hope that a new generation of children around the world will grow up understanding that it is morally unacceptable to confine such social, intelligent, self-aware and emotional beings for our entertainment and amusement.

Blackfish cast Jeffrey Ventre, Samantha Berg, & Carol Ray about to shred a mountain pass in Park City, Utah

Samantha Berg M.Ac, L.Ac, Acupuncturist

Tell Blackfish fans and supporters what they can do to help these orcas?

After watching Blackfish the most important thing you can do is DON'T BUY A TICKET (to SeaWorld or other marine parks with Orcas in captivity). Don't support any marine parks or aquariums the keep large marine mammals in captivity and tell all of your friends to watch "Blackfish" and read "Death at SeaWorld" (author: David Kirby).

Samantha Berg answers media questions in New York 

People can also visit the Voice of the Orcas "Blackfish Landing Pad HERE

This site lists things that everyone can do, including contacting your local politicians and encouraging all marine parks to stop their captive breeding programs. We have also included a list of established Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) who are already doing great animal welfare/anti-captivity work. It's important to support these organizations in any way you can. If contributing funds is not an option, most NGO's appreciate any volunteer time you can offer to help further the cause. 

Samantha Berg, Jeffrey Ventre, Carol Ray

How can folks join the movement and get future updates? 

People are welcome to contact us (VOTO) with specific questions via the Voice Of The Orcas website where we have posted plenty of information and materials to help people understand the realities of killer whale captivity. 
And you can follow us on twitter @Voice_OT_Orcas 

Jeff & Sam get ready to unfurl the Blackfish Poster in Orlando 

John Jett PhD, Research Professor

What risks personally and professionally did you consider when deciding to go public with the story told in Blackfish?

Jeff Ventre and I began speaking and writing about the realities of killer whale captivity prior to Blackfish. In fact our discussion, albeit private, began while we were both still employed at SeaWorld, and has continued through the years. I was personally pretty scared of some type of recourse from SeaWorld. My wife wasn’t very supportive of the idea at first as we were both afraid that SeaWorld or the industry would try to make our lives difficult. We’re both dedicated parents and certainly didn’t want our child to be dragged into some kind of mess. 

John Jett, Carol Ray, Samantha Berg at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City

By the way, the kind of recourse we worried about is currently happening at Marineland in Canada. The owner there is suing trainers for speaking out and telling the truth as they experienced and witnessed. In the end though, we (Jeff, my wife and I) knew it was our responsibility to speak the truth. Professionally, I was worried that my university wouldn’t support me. I approached them early on in the process; they ensured me that I had nothing to worry about as long as I told the truth. I’ve certainly appreciated their support. 

Drs John Jett & Jeffrey Ventre sandwich Samantha Berg at Sundance 

By the time Blackfish was released we had already been discussing the issue for some time so I was less worried about it. By then, the circle of people speaking out was also much larger, and I felt somewhat insulated by the fact that we were, independently, all saying the same things. 

Dr John Jett  on the beach
What else do people need to know that they may not already?

People need to know that stepping out and telling the truth is scary, especially when going against a huge corporation with endless pockets, and it is my belief, a vested interest in assassinating one’s character in an effort to maintain the status quo. It’s been scary for me because I have a family and a career to consider. I have a lot to lose. It’s easy to see why employees are afraid to speak out when they know things are wrong. 

I get it.