Following the festival’s kickoff screening of Blackfish, a Q & A session was held onstage with the film’s director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and former Sea World trainers John Jett, Samantha Berg, Jeff Ventre and John Hargrove, the former three of which are featured in the film. The audience freely exchanged their thoughts and inquiries after the emotional documentary and nearly all the film participant’s responses were followed with applause.
Here’s an excerpt from the session…
What did you want to accomplish with this film?
I wanted the story to take me wherever it took me. My job as director is surmised in arming you all with the truth. I just trust that you all will make the best decision for yourselves and your families based on the truth. I can tell what I would do and what I hope to get out of it, but whatever you all do is ok.
How did you acquired footage of the whale attacks, and how did you choose which pieces to use?
Acquiring the footage is a long and arduous process. Some of it is proprietary-ish, some of it we had to pursue, to buy, and a lot of it is public record that takes months and months to get. You just have to be dogged.
As for what I chose to put in and what I chose to leave out: If I let the story of Dawn and Tilikum drive where I was going with this, I knew I had to have self-restraint, and I had to be disciplined in telling that story. So, whatever footage fit in with that story ended up in the film. That means so many things about other incidents, trainer safety and Sea Lion and Otter stadium, a whole other culture at Sea World, were left out. I knew in order to keep you guys interested and focused I had one story to tell. That was my driving force.
How did you decide what level of graphicness to use?
In terms of graphicness and autopsy reports, I believe some of that had to be in their in order for everyone to understand that this was an aggressive act, which is the opposite of what Sea World is saying. Certainly, it’s a tight rope, and it’s a fine line we all walk when discussing the subject. Hopefully, it struck a balance. My seven year olds have seen it, but I don’t know about younger than that. It’s a little intense.
[Addressed to the trainers] Can you talk about the physical presence of these animals with human beings?
The animals are so majestic. You don’t have to know anything about killer whales or animal training, and you’re awe inspired. I can tell you my career was over a 19-year period, and I’ve been in so many situations with these animals. You can’t believe what they are capable of, the level of capacity for love, intelligence. The relationship is very real and strong. I don’t believe animals should be in captivity for entertainment purposes, but this was a privilege I will cherish for the rest of my life, having the relationship with these animals. It was the hardest thing to walk away from it and leave them behind.
Seeing them in the wild is where they should be seen. Watching them, I know that as much as we love the animals we worked with, as much as I remember being a star-struck 22-year old, seeing them in the wild was a different experience. It took my breadth away in a different way, and I knew I was seeing these animals doing what they were meant to do. It hurt my heart that I could have spent three and half years in this place and not see that. It’s the illusion that Gabriela endows through this film: you see the experience through our eyes, and all we want to do is train these whales. None of us may stop to think that this is maybe not what they want.
I actually worked with Tilikum a lot. He was one of my primary animals. He was the whale I was least afraid of. I had no fear around him, which is completely naïve obviously. I never really developed a full level of comfortablilty with the animals in the water, but Tilikum was my puppy dog.
If the park shut down, what should be done with the animals?
Some of the animals are potentially releasable and others aren’t. The key factor, in my opinion, is their teeth. These animals have very poor dentition in captivity, and the reason why is they break their teeth off on the steel segregation gates that are used to separate them for training sessions. The vets go through a pretty barbaric procedure called a pulpotomy where they take a variable speed drill; they use food deprivation to get the animals to sit there and hold with no anesthetic, and they bore a hole through the tooth. If you go to Sea World, they sell this to the public as superior dental care. They don’t put in the fact that the animal has chipped the enamel off the tooth. If you look close at the footage, you will see that Tilikum has no teeth on his bottom jaw. He has open boreholes, which provide a pathway for bacteria. He gets his teeth flushed three times a day, so on average, these whales are very poor candidates for release. The idea of sea pens for other animals has been introduced, and I think that’s a good idea.
What I think is going to happen is that the animals healthy enough to be shipped to other countries will live out their lives in places where human rights are less than they are in the United States. I think eventually this practice of the sea circus is going to become so unpalatable for all of us that it’s no longer tolerated. But, these animals are million dollar assets so I don’t think the company, which is owned by Blackstone, is going to give up the business model. They are just going to ship the whales to other places that have less information than we do.