When filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite arrived at the Sundance Film Festival last year with her documentary, “Blackfish,” her expectations were low.
“Documentary filmmakers, we’re not necessarily expecting our films even to be seen on purpose,” Cowperthwaite said this week. “But not only is it being seen by people, voluntarily, but it’s starting to change the way people think. And that’s just confounding. It’s amazing.”
“Blackfish,” a thorough look at the lives of orcas held in captivity at SeaWorld and other marine theme parks, is one of many Sundance films that lands with a goal beyond merely finding a distribution deal. These films aim to start a national debate or spur policy changes on real-world issues.
John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival — which starts its 2014 edition Thursday night in Park City — said that sparking debate is something he and his programming team think about when picking documentaries for the festival, but it’s often just a byproduct of the process.
“We’re always film first,” Cooper said. “What we’re looking at is: Does it engage the audience? Is it well made?”
“If a conversation is sparked and policies are changed, it’s because the films work,” said Trevor Groth, the festival’s programming director.
Sometimes, senior programmer David Courier pointed out, a documentary aims to tackle a big issue and start a national dialogue. He cited Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth,” Eugene Jarecki’s 2012 War on Drugs indictment “The House I Live In,” and last year’s “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” as Sundance movies that took on big, overarching topics.
At other times, a documentary’s impact is felt by a small group of people. Courier cites “Paradise Lost,” the 1996 documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that examined the conviction of three teens accused of molesting and killing small boys in West Memphis, Ark.
“Paradise Lost,” which spawned two sequels, “just galvanized a movement that led to the reinvestigation and ultimate liberation of those three boys who were wrongly convicted of murder,” Courier said. The defendants, who became known as the “West Memphis 3” and were once on death row, were released from prison in 2011.
For the 2012 Sundance documentary “The Invisible War,” which compiled stories of sexual assault in the U.S. military, the filmmakers sought an audience of one — then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The effect was immediate: Two days after Panetta saw the movie, he ordered a major Pentagon policy change, to take the decision to prosecute a rape case out of the hands of the victim’s superior officer.
The makers of “The Invisible War,” Cooper noted, came into Sundance with a game plan to increase awareness of the issue after the film’s debut, including an extensive website, calls to action and screenings in New York and Washington, D.C.
Those screenings, director Kirby Dick said in an interview in July 2012, “created a word-of-mouth for the film” with lawmakers and media leaders. “It’s making an impact at all levels.”
That campaign isn’t done. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would establish independent panels to investigate rape cases. Gillibrand tried and failed to get the legislation included in this year’s military budget, but plans to introduce the bill as a stand-alone in February.
With “Blackfish,” director Cowperthwaite wanted first to make a good movie.
“I really needed it to be entertaining,” Cowperthwaite said. “I didn’t want it to feel like medicine.”
“Blackfish” has elements of a personality piece, profiling the bull orca Tilikum from his youth, captured in the open ocean, through his years in captivity. The film also has the thrill of a murder mystery, as it explores Tilikum’s role in the deaths of three people — the last being Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida, who died from an encounter with Tilikum in 2010.
“Blackfish” wowed audiences at Sundance last year, and drew a crowd of potential buyers. Eventually, Magnolia Pictures and CNN partnered on a deal that would guarantee the film a theatrical release and a TV premiere.
A theatrical release gives a film cachet, Cowperthwaite said, but “to have CNN as the trump card, in the end there, was huge. We just knew that if people just see it, and it’s easy for them to see it and they can just stumble across it, my hope is they won’t be able to take their eyes off of it.”
SeaWorld declined Cowperthwaite’s requests for interviews while she was making the film, and stayed quiet when it debuted at Sundance. When “Blackfish” came out in theaters this summer, SeaWorld went into PR overdrive, sending letters to film critics nationwide that called the film “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading and scientifically inaccurate.”
Cowperthwaite said Seaworld has not “had to argue, or really pay attention to any dissent, for 40 years. They’ve been able to not even acknowledge how things could have gone wrong.”
After the film aired on CNN, the response against SeaWorld took on a life of its own, Cowperthwaite said. Online petitions were launched urging SeaWorld to stop breeding captive orcas, and to release Tilikum into a seapen for rehabilitation. Also, several music acts — including Willie Nelson, Barenaked Ladies, Heart, Cheap Trick, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, REO Speedwagon and (just this Friday) Trace Adkins — have canceled gigs at SeaWorld parks.
“I didn’t do that. Those were independent petitioners. … I didn’t sign one petition,” Cowperthwaite said. “This film has ceased to be mine a long time ago. It’s now yours. It’s everybody’s now.”
Cowperthwaite imagines a longterm impact for “Blackfish,” beyond the petitions and protests.
“If we can be done with animals as entertainment in our lifetime, that will be amazing,” she said. “If this younger generation can be the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation, and just start envisioning a world where we view our relationship with our animal counterparts on this earth differently…, that would be tremendous.”
Sundance’s programmers point to some of the documentaries premiering in Park City this month that have the potential to stir up similar action. Among them are: “Alive Inside,” which touts a program to help Alzheimer’s patients by playing them music from their youth; the anti-obesity film “Fed Up,” which points a finger at problems with the federal government’s regulation of food; and “Private Violence,” an examination of the causes and misconceptions of domestic abuse.
“Films do have the ability to change things,” Cowperthwaite said. “People, if you arm them with the truth, are capable of changing how they go about life. They are willing to shift and change and recalibrate how to do things ethically, based on truthful information. That’s just one of the coolest things imaginable.”
Documentaries with impact
Six movies that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to make an impact in the world.
Played Sundance • 2013.
What the film’s about • A look at the lives of orcas in captivity, performing in marine attractions — focusing on a 2010 incident where a SeaWorld trainer was killed in an encounter with an orca named Tilikum.
Impact • Online petitions urging SeaWorld to change its practices have attracted thousands of signatures, while several musical acts have canceled upcoming gigs at SeaWorld parks.
Played Sundance • 2007.
What the film’s about • A New Jersey policewoman, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, fights to ensure her survivor’s benefits go to her girlfriend.
Impact • The case, publicized by the Oscar-winning film, became a template in the fight for extending spousal benefits to same-sex couples in several states.
‘The Invisible War’
Played Sundance • 2012.
What the film’s about • An expose of sexual abuse in the U.S. military, examining how prosecuting such cases is hampered by the fact that victims must report accusations to their superior officer — who is often a friend of the rapist, or sometimes is the rapist.
Impact • Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta changed the policy that victims must report to their superior officer — though they still must go through the chain of command. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is working on legislation to create an independent body to prosecute such cases.
Played Sundance • 1996.
What the film’s about • An examination of a murder case in West Memphis, Ark., in which three 8-year-old boys were murdered and sexually mutilated. With questionable evidence and a panicked media environment, three teens were arrested and convicted.
Impact • The film (and two sequels) prompted a years-long campaign, supported by such celebrities as Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, to reopen the “West Memphis 3” case. In 2011, after the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a hearing to examine DNA evidence, prosecutors struck a deal to release the three from prison.
‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’
Played Sundance • 2013.
What the film’s about • Following the court cases of three members of the Russian punk band/protest group Pussy Riot, accused and convicted of hooliganism at a religious site — a conviction many saw as politically motivated, because of the band’s opposition to Vladimir Putin.
Impact • Helped galvanize international protests to the imprisonment of band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. (A third member received probation, which was shown in the film.) Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were released just before Christmas, after the State Duma (the lower house of Russia’s legislature) approved an amnesty bill.
‘Super Size Me’
Played Sundance • 2004.
What the film’s about • Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald’s food for a month, to demonstrate the unhealthy effects of our fast-food culture.
Impact • Six weeks after the film played at Sundance, McDonald’s announced it was phasing out its “super size” option — though the company vociferously denied the change had anything to do with the film, but was designed to streamline the menu. In later years, under criticism from health advocates, McDonald’s has also introduced more healthful items to its menus.
O The Tribune’s Jennifer Napier-Pierce talks to Sundance organizers, and to Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means, in a TribTalk on Monday at 12:15 p.m. — at sltrib.com.