'Blackfish' kicks off Sarasota Film Fest

The documentary is the first of 222 at the festival

mclear@bradenton.comApril 4, 2013 

There's been some very negative reaction to the documentary "Blackfish." It's come mostly from officials of SeaWorld.

"Blackfish" is a new documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. It premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, and it will hold the prestigious opening spot at the 15th annual Sarasota Film Festival. It's scheduled to screened at 7 p.m. Friday at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

"Blackfish" revolves around Tilikum, an orca in captivity at Sea World Orlando who has been involved in the deaths of three people. The first death occurred at another park before Tilikum came to SeaWorld.

Cowperthwaite had directed only one film before "Blackfish." That one was about urban lacrosse.

When she heard about Tilikum killing his 40-year-old trainer, Dawn Brancheau, three years ago, she reportedly became intrigued with the story after learning that SeaWorld's official account of the incident were at odds with descriptions by witnesses.

Her film traces Tilikum's life, from the time he was captured near Iceland in 1983, through the three deaths, the first of which involved two other whales, who tossed a trainer back and forth to each other in their mouths until she died. Critics have said that some of the footage in "Blackfish" is quite graphic and grisly.

Cowperthwaite also interviewed at least eight former SeaWorld employees for the film. At least some of them doubt SeaWorld's official explanation that Brancheau was at fault.

Within 10 days of the film's premiere, SeaWorld, according to the Los Angeles Times, issued a statement saying that it "appears to repeat the same unfounded allegations made many times over the last several years by animal-rights activists. Importantly, the film fails to make the most important point about SeaWorld. The company is dedicated in every respect to the safety of our staff and the welfare of animals."

Film critics, though, have called it "gripping," "powerful" and "persuasive" in its argument against keeping intelligent creatures such as whales captive for entertainment purposes.

Cowperthwaite will be on hand for the Friday's screening.

"Blackfish" is just one of 222 films, in just about every imaginable genre, scheduled for the festival, which runs April 5-14.

Among the other celebrities scheduled to appear during the festival are actors Mariel Hemingway, Lili Taylor, Cheryl Hines, Griffin Dunne, actor/director Peter Bogdanovich and two-time Oscar-winning documentary director Barbara Kopple.

Kopple and Hemingway will be at the screening of "Running From Crazy," Kopple's new documentary about Hemingway and her lifelong efforts to deal with her family's legacy of depression and suicide.

"Running from Crazy" is the festival's Centerpiece Film, scheduled to be screened at 6 p.m. April 12 at the Sarasota Opera House.

Closing the festival's film lineup at 6 p.m. April 13 at the Sarasota Opera House is "Frances Ha," a new comedy directed and co-written by Noah Baumbach, who's best known for "The Squid and the Whale" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou."

A new feature this year is a "Spotlight Series" of films that organizers expect to be especially popular with festival audiences.

Included are "Burma," which stars Christopher Abbott and Gaby Hoffman; Justin Schwarz's "The Discoverers," starring Dunne; and the world premiere of Will Slocombe's "Pasadena," starring Bogdanovich and Hines.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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