Film festival attendees gathered outside the Van Wezel Friday night before a screening of the documentary Blackfish.

By Kay Kipling

(photos by Rebecca Baxter)

The 15th annual Sarasota Film Festival commenced Friday with the opening night film and party at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. And a nearly full house turned out to view the documentary Blackfish, with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite in attendance.

The festival hasn’t usually started things off with a documentary, and it was taking a bit of a chance with this one, which is designed as more of a call to action than a “feel-good” movie. Filmmaker Cowperthwaite takes on the controversial issue of killer whales in captivity, most specifically at Sea World--making this a film that, as festival director Tom Hall said, “resonates for the state of Florida."

The film begins with the recorded 911 call that summoned emergency teams to Sea World in Orlando shortly after trainer Dawn Brancheau was attacked by the whale Tilikum during a performance there in 2010. From that opening tragedy, we learn more about not only that case but earlier tragedies related to Tilikum, and how killer whales--enormous and intelligent creatures with distinct familial relationships--were originally captured, brought to water theme parks and trained to perform, whether it was in their best interest or not.

That it was clearly not in the whales’ best interest is movingly told over and over again by former Sea World trainers Cowperthwaite got to talk on camera. (Several of them also showed up for the Q&A session after the screening Friday night.) All of them initially loved their jobs and were thrilled to be working with the whales, but have come to believe, along with scientists who study the animals, that they do not belong in captivity but should be seen by humans only in the wild.

Some of the footage of the whales in the wild here is both remarkable and at times, heart-rending, as when you see young whales being separated from their mothers. For Tilikum and others already in captivity, release into the ocean is not an answer; in some of the more gruesome details from trainers and researchers, we learn that most of the older whales have lost so many of their teeth (from attacking their enclosures) they couldn’t survive in nature. The best solution might be to return some of them to larger pens at sea. In the meantime, trainers are no longer getting into the water with the whales at Sea World--a judicial order the company is appealing.

Blackfish is well done and was well received, both here and earlier at Sundance; it remains to be seen if there’s hope for whales in captivity to eventually live better lives. Watching them in the ocean, where they belong, you certainly want to believe so.R

Read executive director Tom Hall's top film picks for this year's festival in our April issue.

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