LOS ANGELES, July 18 (Reuters) - Gabriela Cowperthwaite was a mom who took her kids to SeaWorld when the death of a killer whale trainer at one of the marine parks sparked her latest filmmaking project.
The documentary "Blackfish" was originally conceived without a point of view as Cowperthwaite set out to answer the question of why a top trainer at SeaWorld became the victim of the killer whale with which she worked and performed.
The resulting film that opens in movie theaters on Friday, however, turned out to be a critical look at the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity.
SeaWorld has launched its own campaign to challenge the criticism of "Blackfish," which has drawn comparisons to the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove" about the killing of dolphins in Japan, a film embraced by animal activists.
In a statement released this week, SeaWorld accused the film of painting "a distorted picture" of its facility, calling it "inaccurate and misleading," as well as exploiting "a tragedy that remains a source of deep pain for Dawn Brancheau's family, friends and colleagues."
Brancheau was killed in 2010 by the great orca, Tilikum, at SeaWorld in Orlando. Although reports differ as to how exactly she was pulled under the water, the autopsy report revealed she died of drowning and blunt force trauma.
"Blackfish" traces the life of Tilikum, who has been performing for 30 years since he was captured in 1983 around the age of 2.
"The Hollywood Reporter" described "Blackfish" as "emotionally powerful," "harrowing" and "a damning indictment of the SeaWorld theme park franchise."
That was not what Cowperthwaite had in mind.
"I don't come from animal activism - I am a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld," said Cowperthwaite, 42. "I thought (the Brancheau) incident was a one-off. In my mind, I was going to make a larger philosophical film about human beings and our relationships with our animal counterparts."
Things took a turn when, during Cowperthwaite's two-year project, she discovered that Brancheau's death was not an isolated incident, and that Tilikum was involved in two other deaths since 1991.
By interviewing Tilikum's former trainers, along with academics and whale experts, the documentary paints a portrait of a captive orca whose behavior appears to come from the stress of the circumstances he was unwittingly placed in after his capture three decades ago.
Cowperthwaite said she exchanged emails with SeaWorld over the course of six months in an attempt to get its side of the story. She provided a list of questions she wanted to discuss, but in the end, the answer she got was "no."
"I wonder whether it was because the truth is in some ways very complicated, very dark," she said. "How could they address those incidents without being defensive or sounding negligent?"
"Or maybe because I'm not a famous filmmaker, they thought this movie will go away and fall by the wayside."
When contacted by Reuters, SeaWorld's vice president of communications, Fred Jacobs, said in a statement that SeaWorld is "much more likely to cooperate with authors or filmmakers when we feel they are approaching the topic in good faith, with a true commitment to balance, fairness, and accuracy. That did not appear to be the case with this project."
Former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg, 45, who worked with Tilikum when she was in her 20s and is featured in "Blackfish," told Reuters it's not about being "anti-SeaWorld" but "anti the way things have been done up to this point."
"I'm rooting for SeaWorld to change its business model, retire the whales and stop the breeding program," Berg said. "Given what we now know, there is a moral responsibility for us to do the right thing."
Cowperthwaite hopes that "Blackfish" will inspire others to take action and not be "passive consumers" like she once was.
"I hope future generations will become more agile in seeing past veneers," she said.