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Friday, September 20, 2013
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On ‘Blackfish’ and the Understated Influence of Documentaries

By Søren Hough

* * *

“Never capture what you can’t control.”

So says the tagline for Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s muckraking new documentary — currently being distributed in select art-house theaters by Magnolia Pictures — which is a stunning indictment of the manner in which SeaWorld has captured and treated wild orca whales over the years. The film could have an enormous impact on tourism and revenue for the theme park chain — but the ramifications of this exposé will extend beyond the director’s intended target.

Blackfish has been welcomed with open arms by critics. With an 84 on Metacritic and a 98 on Rotten Tomatoes, the film is being hailed as a well-crafted documentary that has brought about a paradigm-shift in terms of the public’s thoughts about show animals. And it is also generating some serious awards buzz — see our own Scott Feinberg‘s latest forecast over at The Hollywood Reporter — with a best documentary feature Oscar nomination certainly possible.

Yet what is remarkable about Blackfish is not its reception, but instead its ripple-effect in the film industry. Louie Psihoyos, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove (2009), another wonderful muckraking film, told the Los Angeles Times that Cowperthwaite’s film has already had a direct impact on at least one major studio’s future plans: according to Psihoyos, Pixar execs decided, after a screening of Blackfish and a meeting with Cowperthwaite, to change their plans for Finding Dory (2016), the highly-anticipated sequel to the Oscar-winning Finding Nemo (2003). In light of the revelations in Blackfish, Pixar “didn’t want to look back on this film in 50 years and have it be their Song of the South,” he said (referring to the racially insensitive 1946 film that Disney keeps in its vault), and, as a result, the studio decided to alter sequences that included aquatic theme parks at the end of the movie.

It is fascinating to see how one little indie documentary has already affected the production and release of a big-studio film. And it is equally fascinating to note how documentaries tend to open the doors to other documentaries, often about related subjects, that adopt similar approaches to advance the message even further.

Would Blackfish have been made — or made with the same heart-tugging approach — without the success of The Cove? I have my doubts.

Similarly, left-winger Michael Moore’s divisive Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) ironically helped to pave the way for right-winger Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America (2012). It was Moore’s intention with the former film, a sensationalist mix of journalism and politics which was released shortly before the 2004 presidential election, to “to see Mr. [George W.] Bush removed from the White House.” The film made a fortune by preaching to the choir, but it ultimately failed in its principal effort to put a new man in the Oval Office. D’Souza’s film targeted a different president using similar techniques — by raising questions of political bias, yellow journalism and questionable fact-checking — and was met with similar results at the box-office and the polls. But it never would have been attempted without Moore’s film. “I learned some lessons from Michael Moore,” D’Souza acknowledged to Fox News, “and hopefully he might learn some lessons from me about handling facts.”

A similar relationship can be found between Super Size Me (2004) and Food, Inc. (2008). Both of these movies tackled the food industry, but would the latter have appeared without consciousness raised by the former about what we eat? And while the content of the two films is similar in many ways, what is perhaps more indicative of their connection is how Morgan Spurlock and Robert Kenner, respectively, approached their material from a position of information-dispersal and not attack. As Kenner himself said, “All we want is transparency and a good conversation about these things.”

These are but a few examples. There are many more — for instance, it’s a safe bet that the global warming doc An Inconvenient Truth (2006) helped to spawn Chasing Ice (2012); Winged Migration (2001) inspired March of the Penguins (2005); The Fog of War (2003) paved the way for The Gatekeepers (2012); The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) helped to make possible How to Survive a Plague (2012); Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) presaged Inside Job (2010); and the list goes on.

Documentaries serve a unique and significant purpose that cannot be overstated. Some help to engender discussion in the community and bring issues to light; others distort the truth in an effort to make a particular argument. But, regardless of their motives, they can have a much bigger impact on our society and world than films made with exponentially larger budgets or that reach exponentially more moviegoers — sometimes so much so that they actually end up influencing or inspiring the films that follow in their wake. Indeed, they hold more power than most people even realize.

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