OFFBEAT: 'Blackfish' doc about local Sea World trainer's death now in Chicago

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-08-02T00:00:00Z 2013-08-22T21:35:32Z OFFBEAT: 'Blackfish' doc about local Sea World trainer's death now in ChicagoBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

The Associated Press Wire Service writes: "What the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary 'The Cove' did for dolphin slaughter in Japan, 'Blackfish' may do for killer whales living in captivity while performing at marine parks."

"Blackfish," which opened in New York and Los Angeles last weekend and is now playing in Chicago, explores what may have caused Tilikum, a 12,000-pound orca, to kill three people, including veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who originally hailed from the Cedar Lake area.

Associated Press Writer Natalie Rotman writes that the news of Brancheau's death in 2010 during a show at SeaWorld in Orlando inspired director Gabriela Cowperthwaite to explore what happened. She explains SeaWorld first claimed the trainer had slipped and fallen; later, it said Tilikum had been spooked by Brancheau's ponytail.

"Tilikum did not attack Dawn," SeaWorld said in a written response to the film.

"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."

The director, who has made documentaries for ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the Discovery and History cable channels, told the Associated Press it took two years to make the film. She procured footage from local and national newscasts, people's personal archives, and through the Freedom of Information Act.

"It was just perseverance when it came to getting footage," she said in an interview with AP.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Once you see that, you can't unsee it. In my mind. that gave me my directive. Now that I know the truth, I have to tell the truth. I didn't imagine that I was going to be making this film. I thought I was gonna be making a completely different film about relationships with our animal counterparts. So it was really learning through interviews and stuff and seeing footage."

Key footage became public after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration took SeaWorld to court and the images became exhibits in the case, she said.

She recruited animal-behavior experts, marine park patrons who witnessed whale attacks during performances and former SeaWorld trainers willing to go on the record.

"Personally, I started learning stuff about the animals I didn't know, and I was working there," said former SeaWorld orca trainer Samantha Berg in the AP story released last week.

Tilikum, born in the wild near Iceland in 1983, was captured and sent to a marine park near Vancouver before he was sold to SeaWorld in Orlando. The film shows divers trapping and kidnapping baby whales for shipment to theme parks while their mothers watched and screeched in agony.

In its statement about the film, SeaWorld said it hasn't captured killer whales from the wild in more than 35 years and that 80 percent of its animals were born there or in other zoological facilities.

The director says she sought comment from SeaWorld, which owns parks in Orlando, San Diego, and San Antonio. But the company declined to appear in "Blackfish," opting instead to issue its July 12 statement, which characterized the film as "shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate."

The film is playing at Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 North Clark St. in Chicago now through Aug. 8, with the possibility of being extended. FYI: (773) 509-4949 or

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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