It’s a rare and precious thing when a documentary changes some small part of the world for the better. And such rarity tells us a great deal about how heavily are the odds usually stacked against documentary – not just as a campaigning tool for change but as a purveyor of disruptive and inconvenient stories.
Take 2013 documentary Blackfish, for example. This feature-length film about a trainer’s death caused by a captive killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, placed the plight of captive orcas in the spotlight. It was the lightning rod for an animal rights campaign that could suddenly call upon celebrities such as Matt Damon, Harry Styles and Willie Nelson to condemn what animal welfare pressure group PETA has called a “tawdry circus”.
The public’s appetite for seeing captive orcas does appear to be waning. Since the documentary’s release, SeaWorld visitor numbers, share price and profits have fallen and the park recently announced that it will end killer whale shows at its San Diego venue.
Revealing the new strategy, SeaWorld’s chief executive Joel Manby said: “We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company, we are always changing. In 2017 we will launch an all new orca experience focused on natural environment [of whales].”
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film tells in chilling and sometimes graphic detail the story of the death, in 2010, of Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old animal trainer. She was dragged under water and drowned by Tilikum, a killer whale and the main visitor attraction at the SeaWorld theme park in Orlando, Florida. Tilikum had killed before: in 1991, another trainer, Keltie Byrne, at the now-closed Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada; and in 1999, Daniel Dukes, a drifter just out of jail who’d sneaked into Tilikum’s SeaWorld enclosure and was discovered the next day hanging drowned and butchered across the whale’s back.
Blackfish was controversial from the moment it debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Quickly picked up for theatrical distribution in the US, the documentary attracted overwhelmingly positive reviews. Its story of dual tragedy – human and captive whale – was elegantly structured and told without recourse to sensationalism.
SeaWorld, for its part, accused it of distortion and misrepresentation. A company-run website called SeaWorld Cares, was set up to demonstrate why the film is “propaganda, not a documentary”. A poll run by a local Orlando newspaper asked: “Has … Blackfish … changed your perception of SeaWorld?” Of the 99% voting no, more than half were cast from a single IP address sourced to SeaWorld. Criticisms of the film from SeaWorld employees also appeared at a time when the film was being strongly tipped for a documentary Oscar. It made the shortlist but missed out on a nomination.
It’s remarkable that a documentary should have made an impact as great as this. All the more so when you consider that the film was made with the slimmest of production budgets: $76,000. While it bears the imprimatur of CNN – the news organisation (along with Magnolia Pictures) picked up the film for distribution after its Sundance screening – CNN did not pay for it to be made.
But there are bigger obstacles that all documentaries have to overcome to be seen and heard by more than a tiny minority. Broadcasters rarely invest in them. If they do, they place heavy restrictions on them. In the US, for example, the Discovery Channel bought the TV rights to Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and then announced that the film was “too controversial” to show (HBO later bought the rights). Film distributors can prove similarly difficult. This year, Amir Amirani’s excellent We Are Many, about the cascading consequences of the 2003 anti-war marches, has struggled to gain the exhibition it deserves.
In particular, it’s notable how common the tactic of labelling documentary as “propaganda” is an accusation that trumps all else because it preemptively renders corrupt the motives of the filmmakers. There are other recalcitrant gatekeepers and influencers too, including, I’m sorry to say, academics who study and write about documentary: academic writing in this area rarely ventures into comment or analysis on this kind of thing, particularly in modern-day, big-business counterattacks.
For all the claims that films such as Blackfish are evidence that we are in a “golden age” of documentary, they are fragile things indeed, easily blown into obscurity or silenced by the sheer weight of corporate power. Gabriela Cowperthwaite may have attracted many who otherwise might not have thought much about the rights of killer whales. Documentary needs advocates to stand up for what, as Blackfish has shown, can be a powerful form of journalism capable of bringing about change.
David Hickman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.