On Oscar nominations morning, awards pundits were buzzing over the Academy’s high-profile snubs: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson and Robert Redford. But in the animal rights world, the upset was over the omission of the popular documentary “Blackfish.”
The film, which explores the treatment of whales in captivity, grossed $2 million at the box office this summer and has been seen by roughly 21 million CNN viewers since it debuted on the cable network in October. It has inspired numerous protests -- in January, some animal activists were arrested after trying to stop a SeaWorld float at the Rose Parade -- and nine musical acts, including Willie Nelson, have canceled upcoming gigs at the amusement park. To combat the negative publicity, SeaWorld has written open letters to film critics, purchased full-page ads in newspapers and recently launched a section on its corporate website called “Truth About Blackfish.”
Suffice it to say, the film has been in the news far more than any of the documentaries up for the Academy Award in March. Of the five nominees, the only picture to gross over $500,000 is “20 Feet From Stardom,” which focuses on those with careers as backup singers.
After she had a few days to process the so-called snub, “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite said she felt her film may have been overlooked because it “wasn’t so much a work of art as it was art doing work.”
“A lot of times the documentaries that do well have a lot of original footage, and a lot of the footage in ‘Blackfish’ is archival,” she said, referring to clips she unearthed of trainers being attacked by orcas. “I wanted this to be an airtight document that could be launched out there and do work in spite of me, without filmmaker craft -- a fact-based narrative that could do good work in the world.”
Though she admits she was “initially disappointed” last week, Cowperthwaite has already placed her focus elsewhere -- refuting statements made on SeaWorld’s new webpage.
The “Truth About Blackfish” page, which you can see a screenshot of above, features videos from park trainers talking about the movie’s untruths. Calling the movie “propaganda, not a documentary,” the site lays out six arguments against the film, one of which is that “Blackfish” “relies on animal rights activists masquerading as scientists.”
Fred Jacobs, SeaWorld’s vice president of communications, said in an e-mail that the website has been in development since December, and the videos were filmed around Christmas.
“As far as why we did it,” he wrote, “‘Blackfish’ is a dishonest and manipulative film and we wanted to create a place where anyone with questions about SeaWorld or how we are being portrayed could find the truth.”
There will likely be additional testimonial videos relating to “Blackfish” posted soon, he added.
Cowperthwaite, along with the Oceanic Preservation Society (the makers of 2010’s Oscar-winning dolphin slaughter doc “The Cove”) quickly fired back, challenging SeaWorld to a debate in a public forum and issuing a lengthy statement.
“SeaWorld can call ‘Blackfish’ propaganda,” the release read in part. “This does not make their assertion true. We stand by our film and the truths it tells. We also stand by the brave whistleblowers.”
The film may no longer be a part of the awards conversation, but it doesn’t look like people are going to stop talking about it anytime soon.