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A Documentary in Name Only

Blackfish vs. SeaWorld.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The conventional wisdom in Tinseltown is that the biggest Oscar snub of the year went to Robert Redford, who failed to get a Best Actor nod. The Hollywood legend delivered a highly praised and mostly wordless performance of a man fighting for his life on a sinking boat in All Is Lost. But much further down the Oscar ballot, there might have been an even bigger stunner about troubled oceangoers: The save-the-whales documentary Blackfish was not nominated for an Academy Award. 

Hey, Hollywood—where’s the love?

Hey, Hollywood—where’s the love?

Of the 15 films shortlisted for Best Documentary, Blackfish was the second-highest grossing, earning a respectable $2 million in theaters, and might have been the most-watched documentary of the year. In addition to being a hit on Netflix, the rights were also bought by CNN Films, and the news network has broadcast the film several times.

What’s more, Blackfish seems perfectly targeted to liberal Hollywood sensibilities: It’s a tale of how corporate greed resulted in the abuse of some of nature’s most majestic animals and a handful of tragic deaths. As an added bonus, Blackfish purports to expose the underlying rot at SeaWorld, one of America’s most popular theme parks. 

The fact that it didn’t get nominated may have something to do with the PR battle the filmmakers have been waging with SeaWorld, which has raised serious concerns about the documentary’s veracity. As the commercial prospects and audiences for documentaries have grown in recent years, Hollywood may be wising up to the fact the genre has become a dumping ground for dubious liberal agitprop. It’s also worth asking what CNN—“the most trusted name in news”—is doing backing an obviously tendentious film.

If you set out to make a movie about the problems of keeping whales in captivity and possible SeaWorld malfeasance, there’s no shortage of material to work with. Over the last few decades, there have been dozens of publicly documented troubling and dangerous incidents involving animal trainers working with killer whales. These include four deaths, notably the highly publicized killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Three of the four killings were done by a single of SeaWorld’s whales, Tilikum, and it’s a legitimate question whether SeaWorld did enough to protect its employees. In 2012 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued regulations preventing trainers from performing with whales close-up and unprotected. This was a key component of SeaWorld’s shows, which involved trainers riding whales and being shot into the air as the whales surfaced.

SeaWorld maintains that they’re being unfairly singled out by OSHA. Many other potentially dangerous forms of entertainment have escaped OSHA’s purview—65 NASCAR drivers, for instance, have died in fatal accidents, yet it’s difficult to imagine federal regulators imposing speed limits on the sport. SeaWorld is still appealing OSHA’s regulations in federal court, and they have good reason to think they were treated unfairly. In January, OSHA announced that Lara Padgett, the employee who led the agency’s six-month investigation concluding SeaWorld was guilty of “willful” safety violations, was under internal investigation. That’s because photos of Padgett surfaced online showing her schmoozing with the director of Blackfish and a number of former SeaWorld employees featured in the movie at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last year. 

The overarching message of Blackfish isn’t that SeaWorld is guilty of creating an unsafe work environment—the film is in fact an 83-minute jeremiad against keeping whales in captivity. Given the size and intelligence of these animals, that’s not an entirely unsympathetic notion. However, there’s no argument the film won’t entertain to advance its point, no matter how absurd. To make the case that these animals must be respected, Lori Marino, Ph.D., a neuroscience and behavioral biology expert at the Center for Ethics at Emory University, is brought on to inform viewers that whales have a “sense of self, a sense of social bonding much more complex than other mammals, including humans.” There’s a lot about whales we don’t understand, but you’d be forgiven for being skeptical that whales have a level of cognizance that René Descartes would appreciate. 

What Blackfish doesn’t mention is that Marino is also the science director for the Nonhuman Rights Project, which aims to “attain legal personhood for nonhuman animals by operating within the reigning legal paradigms.” The Nonhuman Rights Project has filed a number of lawsuits to advance that aim. In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals went so far as to sue SeaWorld, demanding the release of five Orcas on the grounds that their 13th Amendment rights were being violated. The short description of Blackfish on Netflix echoed this absurd notion—“They’re hunted, herded, and forced to dance. Meet a 15,000 pound slave.” Fortunately, federal courts agree extending constitutional rights to animals is absurd. PETA lost Tilikum v. SeaWorld, and federal precedent on the matter has been set, putting a damper on nonhuman rights lawsuits. 

Beyond the big questions, the film commits many basic journalistic sins. The blog Micechat, devoted to theme park news, has documented a number of deceptions in Blackfish. The film says that SeaWorld was responsible for capturing whales in Iceland, which is not true. (In 1985, SeaWorld began breeding whales and has subsequently been purchasing them from other parks where they were held in captivity.) SeaWorld stopped participating in whale captures in part because the public was rightly horrified at efforts to capture whales in Puget Sound that resulted in the deaths of a number of Orcas in the seventies. The documentary’s treatment of this episode is picturesque, to say no more. A heavily tattooed salty dog who is said to have participated in one of the notorious whale captures explains, “I’ve been part of a revolution to change a president in Central America and seen some things that are hard to believe. But the worst thing I’ve ever done is hunt that whale.” That short comment raises a number of questions, and none of them enhance the source’s credibility. 

The footage used to represent the events described in the film comes from entirely different contexts, though the film never reveals as much. During a discussion of the capture of Tilikum, the footage shown is of Keiko, the whale from Free Willy, being shipped from Mexico to Oregon in order to be released into the wild. At one point, a former SeaWorld trainer, Samantha Berg, describes her first time getting in the tank to interact with the whales, while arguing she was unprepared for the event. “They just told me to go do it and I did it,” says Berg, as the film shows footage of another trainer, Holly Byrd, riding around the tank on top of a whale. Byrd has spoken out about the film’s manipulation, noting that she spent “two years of my career leading up to that point. .  .  . The one thing I want people to know after watching the movie is that it’s not true.” Adding to the manipulation, the footage is grainy, and from a distance Byrd could be a dead ringer for Berg. 

Another former SeaWorld trainer who worked with the Blackfish filmmakers has also spoken out after seeing the film. “Blackfish was a complete ‘180’ from what was originally presented to me,” said Bridgette Pirtle. “Now, it’s almost like my worst fears are unfolding in front of me.” According to Pirtle, Jeff Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer who is featured extensively throughout the documentary, “was fired for multiple safety violations in the water with killer whales.” 

But for many, the film’s most egregious transgression is its treatment of the death of Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau’s family has put out a statement distancing themselves from the film, and a former coworker wrote an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel accusing the filmmakers of exploiting Brancheau’s death, calling Blackfish “a spiteful monologue.” It doesn’t help that the talking heads in Blackfish speculate that SeaWorld deliberately spread false information in the aftermath of Brancheau’s death, when the only evidence points to local law enforcement bungling inconsequential details. 

Blackfish does raise a few legitimate questions about SeaWorld’s practices, but a responsible inquiry would weigh any criticism against an obvious question: Why do we keep any animals in zoological environments? Part of the answer is that we learn a great deal about animals in captivity, and that knowledge often proves vital to propagating the species and protecting their habitats. It’s understandable that people would bristle at the notion of keeping such large animals penned up for human amusement, but it’s hard to deny SeaWorld has made voluminous contributions to marine biology. If “save the whales” has gone from hippie slogan to accepted wisdom, that might owe something to the generations of Americans who trekked to SeaWorld to marvel at what Shamu can do. 

Blackfish isn’t unique among popular documentaries in its errors and distortions. In 2011, the documentary Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award. Gasland is a radical environmental fulmination against “fracking,” the drilling technique responsible for our current domestic energy boom. The film’s claims have since been thoroughly debunked by even sympathetic liberal environmentalists. 

Also in 2011, a judge blocked an $18.2 billion ruling against Chevron for allegedly contaminating the Amazon. The ruling extensively cited raw footage subpoenaed from Crude, a 2009 environmental documentary made by the Academy Award-nominated Joe Berlinger that glorified the lawsuit and those who brought it. It turns out that one scene left on the cutting room floor showed the American lawyer heading up the class-action suit talking about intimidating Ecuadorean legal authorities and saying it would be “good” for a judge to fear getting killed if he rules the wrong way. Chevron is now pursuing a RICO suit against the lawyers, claiming that they were trying to shake the oil company down.

Unfortunately, movie audiences don’t know what they don’t know and are easily manipulated. There’s no question SeaWorld’s brand has been tarnished by Blackfish. Eight big-name musical acts have pulled out of SeaWorld’s “Bands, Brew & BBQ” concert series, citing the documentary. But attendance at SeaWorld parks has actually improved since the film’s release, and the failure to garner an Academy Award nomination probably means the negative publicity will die down soon.

Still, it might be time to start looking more closely at the actual documentation underlying documentaries, especially if organizations such as CNN and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are risking their credibility to support them.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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