Blackfish : Mending The Broken Song
We're all too familiar and aware of ills in our society, especially those in regards to animals. Certainly, there is the overwhelming feeling of helplessness and even the smallest battles can be exhausting. Yet, this film is a powerful example that we can be active and participate. We can share the knowledge with others.
On April 5, 2013, the 15th annual Sarasota Film Festival
kicked off with the Opening Night film "Blackfish"
. I chose it as my top pick while covering the film festival as I was eagerly anticipating it. This provocative documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and continues to build momentum, earning awards at festivals around the world. Recently, the buzz for an Oscar nomination has begun. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, Blackfish opened in select theaters on July 19th to audiences nationwide. This weekend, it opens in Sarasota at Burns Court Cinema
where you will have the opportunity to see this powerful and important film.
The film focuses on the captivity of Tilikum, a 12,000 pound bull Orca, who over decades was responsible for the death of three people including Sea World trainer, Dawn Brancheau in Orlando. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite was as startled as many of us who watched the national headlines. Then, she asked the question, "How does this happen to a seasoned trainer?" From there, her exploration and investigations began... The film reveals the painstaking and heartbreaking reality of these animals in captivity at sea parks. It will infuriate you too. Personally, it left me paralyzed for months before I could even begin to write this long overdue article. It hurt like hell. Yet, neglecting the film's message was never an option as I remained in conversation with those in the film and those supporting it. Former Sea World trainers in the film like Samantha Berg, Jeffrey Ventre and John Hargrove stayed in contact and continued to share more information with me long after it screened here. Samantha Berg and Jeffrey Ventre are two members of Voice of the Orcas
, a team dedicated to providing a voice and educating the public with further updates on this movement. Blackfish and marine animal supporter, Lindie O' Brien of Lake Erie, Canada became a dear friend through Twitter with others who are behind the "Tweet Storms" for Blackfish and its message. While struggling to write about Blackfish, Lindie offered me valuable information and encouragement with the most calming grace.
If you're an animal lover, as most of us are, it's difficult to digest the harrowing reality this documentary exposes. Perhaps a bit tougher for those of us who are active in animal well being. For many years, my work as a healing practitioner and artist has been focused on honoring their spirit, promoting education, and raising funds for rescue and rehabilitation. When it came to gathering notes of specifics on the film, I went blank. Still haunted by one scene in particular. Former Sea World trainer, Carol Ray shares a memory in the film of the excruciating cries of Kalina when her calf Katina (the original Baby Shamu) was removed from her. Footage of Kalina mourning in her tank was unbearable as Carol recalls it being a sound from her like nothing she's heard before. It kept coming back to me as tears flooded again, unable to write with confidence and a well manicured script. This morning it dawned on me. I've never approach writing, a performance or a painting as a mechanic. Best to approach it as I do with any art. Trust the process and it will organically it will arrive in it's own due time. Approaching it with the heart, has the potential to be sloppy. So be it, as this film deserves a human and honest voice - nothing less.
The film opens with the 2010 attack of seasoned Sea World trainer, Brancheau. Former trainers who worked with her share their stories and experiences. Not only this attack, but others like it. The franchise coined it as trainer error. Tilikum had a history of these attacks. Orca Researcher, Howard Garrett states in the film "To this day, there has been no record of any Orca doing any harm to a human in the wild". So what happened? Trainers recall their first contact with these glorious creatures and the sense of something remarkably tender and open in them. But, if you beat down the spirit of any animal long enough, something's going to break.
Tilikum was captured near Iceland in 1983, the footage also exposes graphic and heartbreaking roundups of young Orcas pulled from their pod (family). What is most astounding is being reminded these are highly sentient beings with immense intelligence. Former trainers who have worked with them first hand will have you in awe of how aware they are to what is going on around them. This is especially something to consider with Tilikum and other Orca attacks on trainers. John Hargrove is one of the leading cast members of Blackfish and shares some insight on his 14 years of experience training and why he chose to quit his job and his thoughts about whales in captivity. In a recent interview on the radio Program, Bridge to Everywhere he shared a fascinating first hand experience on the Orca's ability to use echolocation
It is also in the nature of the Orca to protect their own, sustaining that familial bond within their pod. Footage in the film reveals the harrowing capture of the Orcas for the park. It's stunning to see the intelligence of these magnificent creatures in their attempts to outsmart the individuals hunting them. One particular pod managed to split up in teams through channels of water. One half of the mothers and calves were swimming in one direction where the other half of the pod swam the other to divert the ships to follow them instead. However, they are spotted from above from hunters in flight. At that point in the film, I lost it. One former fisherman, consumed with guilt, breaks down in tears during an interview as recounts devastating and grisly acts. This is far from the playful design of the Sea World logo, attempting to translate wholesome.
What was more infuriating is when Orca specialists share the extraordinary emotional capacity and intelligence of these animals, later to be held captive in unimaginable conditions. There's the disturbing cosmetic work done to them as their teeth are drilled. Forced to be into extremely cramped quarters in tanks with others not in their pod, scrapes on their bodies result from attacks on one another. Food deprivation is a constant routine to guarantee tricks for a big show. Consistent screams of delight, applause and other noises from shows, the lights bombard the nature of the killer whales causing immense distress. But, those smiles! We delight when we see Orcas and Dolphins leaping and playing. Not so. They cannot move their facial muscles to communicate their feelings like humans. So, this natural curve of jaw and mouth which produces this falsehood remains even when they're injured or hurting. "The dolphin smile is nature's greatest deception, " says dolphin activist Ric O'Barry
. "It creates the illusion that they're always happy. I think this multi-billion dollar captivity industry is built on that optical illusion."
The divine nature we appreciate of these animals is abused for the sake of our investment for our wholesome family outing. We set aside weeks for a vacation to invest in our family quality time in those sea park packages. Yet, I ask that you consider these two words - quality and family. This film demonstrates so profoundly how these two words are vital to Orcas and have been horrifically stripped from them. The cute plush Shamus and colorful fridge magnets are funding it, too. Is this really enriching our youth? Once you've seen this film, there is absolutely nothing wholesome nor educational in this industry.
Though the monstrous financial agenda is battle to go up against, voices are being heard. The OSHA reports and trials continue on the risk factors of trainers in the water with these Orcas. Blackfish is reaching audiences globally and opening eyes to the truth that many, like myself, were unaware of. If you've followed the mainstream headlines, you'll find Sea World has come out swinging. After refusing to comment or contribute to the film when director, Cowperthwaite approached them many times over the years, suddenly there's a whole lot of damage control happening. Word got out, sensational reviews, Oscar buzz and even celebrities started championing the film and it's message.
Fortunately, I was able to talk to former Sea World trainer, Samantha Berg who also appears in the film. She was gracious to take her time and answer some questions to contribute further.
We're all too familiar and aware of ills in our society, especially those in regards to animals. Certainly, there is the overwhelming feeling of helplessness and even the smallest battles can be exhausting. Yet, this film is a powerful example that we can be active and participate. We can share the knowledge with others. Perhaps taking a few minutes to research online, ask questions before we invest as consumers. One thing I discovered in myself is I usually avoided these films as I did with the 2009 Academy Award winning documentary, The Cove
. This time, with Blackfish, I couldn't remain passive anymore. Though words failed me after the screening of Blackfish, there was another voice I had access to. Turning to my paintbrush, I painted my first Orca. Approaching it with no concern if it's sloppy or his fins were too small. It's never about being mechanical or 'correct'. Minutes later, it was sold and the funds were donated to Sea Shepard. It took only 20 minutes of my day. In doing so, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish gave me my power back. Though, it broke my heart, it made room for a new space. The spirit of Orca's healing song reminded me we are never without a voice to mend that which is broken.
- Robin Punsalan is a Fine Artist of 20 plus years. Radio City Music Hall. SAG/AEA Actress. (NYC - Off Broadway. Ontological Hysteric Theater. Europe for tours). Hudson and Coronet Theatre - LA. Vegas : MGM. Cirque du Soleil "KA".
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