Festive mood, powerful film kick off Sarasota fest

'Blackfish' an unusual but effective opening night film

mclear@bradenton.comApril 6, 2013 

SARASOTA

Outside on the red carpet, the mood was festive but the scene was chaotic. Newspaper reporters and TV news people jockeyed for position as actors and directors gracefully answered the same questions over and over again, inching their way toward the front doors of Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

It was opening night for the 15th annual Sarasota Film Festival. Most of the big-name stars -- Mariel Hemingway, Lili Taylor, Griffin Dunne, Peter Bogdanovich, among others -- will be coming in next week.

Fielding questions on the red carpet were some young filmmakers and actors. There was a young man who had chronicled his weight loss in a short documentary, two Ringling School of Art film students who had written and directed a short film that's sort of riff on "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" set in the Louisiana swamp, a professional clown who took part in documentary about the old Clown College in Sarasota.

Perhaps the biggest star was Catherine Dent, an actor who was on the TV series "The Shield" for seven years, She has now turned to directing.

But the center of attention was Gabriela Cowperthwaite, whose new documentary "Blackfish" was the first film of this year's festival.

"This is a film that will change people's lives," Cowperthwaite said, "or at least change the way they think."

The way she knows it can do that, she said, is that it did it for her.

"Blackfish" revolves around Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld in Orlando who has been involved with the deaths of three people.

"I did not come from an animal rights activist background," Cowpertwhaite said. "This was going to be a film about our relationship with the animals we keep, and SeaWorld was going to be a part of it."

After completing the film, she said, "I am absolutely opposed to using animals for entertainment.

Mark Famiglio, the president of the Sarasota Film Festival, allowed that "Blackfish" was an nontraditional choice for the prestigious opening spot in the festival.

"This is not a family film," he said. "But we came across it at Sundance and we liked it very much. We like to have films that can serve as a platform for discussion, and our audiences will be able to appreciate the ideas in this film."

Inside, the near-capacity audience was still ebullient, even applauding the few short commercials that ran before the film.

Once "Blackfish" began, though, the entire hall was dead silent, except for occasional gasp.

Cowperthwaite's powerful documentary details the mistreatment of Tilikum and other killer whales at SeaWorld and other faculties. (SeaWorld is, in fact, portrayed as one of the most professional facilities that keeps and breeds orcas.)

In talks with former SeaWorld trainers, some of whom were present at the screening -- a neuroscientist and a whale researcher -- Cowperthwiate quietly offers both a tribute to surprisingly emotional animals and condemnation of human selfishness.

A few images were shocking because they were graphic and bloody, but most of the gasps came through the trainers' descriptions of the way whales are treated, and of the alleged coverups involved in the three deaths.

SeaWorld, the film says, declined to be interviewed.

Once the 90-minute film ended, filmgoers exited to the lobby for a party. But there was one last but of sadness. On their way out, the theme from "The Third Man" played filled the lobby.

It was the favorite film of Roger Ebert, who had died the day before.

The festival continues through April 14. The box office is at the Regal Hollywood 20, 1993 Main St., Sarasota. Tickets, and the complete schedule of films and events, are available at www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7919. Follow him on Twitter: @martinclear.

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