The Impact Interview Series is a collaboration between WITNESS and BritDocs who produce and host the Impact Awards for independent documentaries. Read more about the Award and this year’s five winning films. 

from the Britdoc Impact DocumentShare a socially conscious story like the documentary film called Blackfish, and we start to see ideas and attitudes change.

Don’t believe me? Look at examples in the Britdoc Impact Document for the film which cites that some stockholders have taken up a class action suit against Sea World or that the U.S. Congress has allotted money to study the effects of orcas in captivity. There have been so many of these types of changes following the release of the documentary in 2013, they’ve been dubbed the “Blackfish Effect.”

How does a filmmaker tell a story about a performing killer whale named Tilikum that killed several people while in captivity so that it creates social change impact and affects big business? We got in touch with one of the directors of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, via an email interview to see what we could learn.

MJ: What was your process in choosing to focus on Tilikum’s story as the primary story for Blackfish on the issue of orcas cruel treatment in captivity?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite: He was as complex a character as I’ve ever encountered. I couldn’t understand why he did what he did – attack a top trainer who presumably had a relationship with him. I felt he must have a complex narrative and that this was the key to understanding what happened on that day.

Was there a moment during the making of the film that you had an ethical conflict? If yes, how did you deal with it?

Any time you realize your entire film hinges on death, it’s very difficult. You’re constantly obsessing, anxiously wondering if you’re doing it right, and hoping the film can do some good in the world because otherwise, why revisit such darkness at all? I know now that the film is raising awareness about the animals and helping to keep the trainers safe. But it wasn’t an easy process.

If there is one person that you hope sits down to watch this film, who would that be? And why?

There is no one person. I hope everyone watches it, especially kids. They’re the “I can’t believe we used to do that” generation. They know animals are not here for our entertainment. I think they have the ability to reimagine the way we relate to them.

What was your most challenging interview to conduct in this film? 

The hardest interview was with the fiance and mother of Alexis Martinez’ (the trainer who was killed by an orca in Loro Parque). We all struggled.

Do you have any hopes that Sea World will reach out to you to work together on any new policies and protocols?


The Britdoc Impact Awards document highlights a 37% drop in Sea World’s financials. If the company has to close down parks would that be considered an impact/success for Blackfish?

SeaWorld could slowly evolve into sea sanctuaries and rehab release programs. It would take a while but it could happen. They have the resources. But that all depends on how they define success. Maybe they’ll still be happy while making an animal jump through a hoop for an audience of 5 people. Not a lot of corporate humility there. They do a lot of self high fives.

What lessons about impact have you learned from this project that you will incorporate into future projects (feel free to mention any future projects in the works)?

You can’t force people to change. But I’ve learned that people are ready and willing to change if they come by new information honestly. And as filmmakers, we need to continue creating these truthful documents no matter who we piss off.


The BritDoc Impact Award video gives highlights of the film’s advocacy successes:

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