In 2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite released her last documentary, Blackfish, about orcas in captivity, especially in SeaWorld. The film directly affected the number of visitors and revenue at the theme park. Ultimately, SeaWorld and its former CEO James Atchison had to pay more than $5 million to settle federal allegations that they covered up the negatives of the documentary.
Nearly a decade later, after dabbling in narrative and 2017’s Megan Leavey and 2019 of our friends, Cowperthwaite with The Grab , in Debut at the Toronto International Film Festival . The book, which will be sold through WME, looks at the geopolitical forces behind global land and water rights, and the race for the world’s last arable land. For The Grab , the filmmakers worked with the Center for Investigative Reporting, spending years delving into the funding and governments behind the global food trade, led by a team from Russia Everywhere to Zambia, reporting on everyone from Vladimir Putin to Blackwater founder Eric Prince.
“The only thing you can do is not go to Sea World. You might be like changing the world by not doing something. This is becoming an activity An easy way to go home,” Copperthwaite said of the immediate action viewers can take after Blackfish. With The Grab broad topic, the metrics are a bit different.
Before the festival, Copperthwaite talked to THR about The Grab .
How did you join the Investigative Reporting Center?
About2016, I was invited to speak with the Center for Investigative Reporting. [Investigative reporter] Nate Halverson had amassed some coverage by then. He hadn’t finished the whole Monte, but they took me in to see if there was a documentary here. I remember it was really, really big at the time. The more Nate and I unraveled this story, the more I thought, “Wait a minute, this is a grab bag.” It’s not just an existential story unfolding. It’s actually like a human proxy.
When did you realize that what you were shooting might be a full-length documentary?
To me, this is probably the last [cultivable] on earth with resource reduction and grabbing Land, and guns and conflict. That suddenly pushes it into this geopolitical landscape, and it almost becomes this story about how the world works — not just where you get your tomatoes. It grew into something that felt like a very high stakes thriller.
The central question of this story has many ways – consolidating the last arable land on earth –It can be said. Why are you doing this through the framing installation of Nate’s investigation?
There are a million ways to tell this story. The most interesting way for me is to experience investigative reporting in real time. This whole story goes on and on. Nate and his team of journalists are discovering things every day. It’s years of research, weeks, weeks, weeks, nothing, and then one thing comes out. For someone who’s not an investigative reporter but loves that world, to me, that’s what makes it feel like a thriller. As a direct thread, I’m also interested in the idea that investigative reporting is under siege, which is like, “Look, a good story takes years.” This kind of true storytelling takes a long time. It’s expensive. You may be sued. This has nothing to do with porn or celebrities. All of this makes it feel like an embattled industry. I want to show that when you arm these guys with a little weight, see what they can find.
In the document, Nate talks about his concerns about his safety. You are filming in real time, so have you ever worried about your safety?
We are all very concerned. We all do extensive diagnostics on all our computers, all our cell phones. We were once taken into a room and told that we should never talk about something in the movie, nor should we talk about the movie in a room with a window because there is surveillance in the room. Your adrenaline has been at a certain level over the years and I think everyone on the team has been through it. who are we? [I’m] a mom in Los Angeles, driving my kids to school. I don’t have any ability to fight all this stuff or protect myself.
Have you ever felt this way before in your career?
I am afraid of being sued by SeaWorld. I know we have an airtight documentary there, and I know it would be very bad for them to give Blackfish more attention. That would be the closest, but I’m more worried about being sued. This is different. We’re exposing things that many powerful people don’t want to expose. We picked a bunch of fights, and Blackfish we picked one. Here you name it and we use it for the task. It’s never the most settled feeling. Nations fought for oil, and now we’re talking about food and water. Every person, every species on earth, has a place in this game. It’s impossible not to feel bigger than us.
You and the team are detained at the airport Zambia and you show this on screen. Why do you want it to be part of the story?
We were there shooting as best we could with our iPhones. We’ve gotten a call from Ethiopian Airlines telling us that back in the US, we’re not allowed to board. A private company calls you and says, “We don’t know who gave the order, but it came from higher up and you can’t get on our flight.” We ended up on another flight. But we were like, “What’s the matter?” So, we shot the airport. That scene was really investigative 2013: You get to the gate of the castle, they won’t let you in. To me, it also says we’re going to be reporting what they don’t want to be reporting. If anything we try to do causes them to not even let us in, then we’re probably on the right track. Not even the “you can’t shoot this, please don’t drive to these places” question. It was: “You can’t even get out of the airport.”
Such a big topic, the movie came out Less than two hours. Is keeping your videos to a certain length something you are particularly concerned about?
Yes. This movie is only as good as the people watching it. It gives them a ton of information and never gives up, so I just respect their time. For me, it’s the best way to tell a story, and it’s the most effective way to tell it. It needs to feel like a cardiotonic.
Did you make it a documentary?
Absolutely. It definitely has legs. We have a whole section on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, Egypt, which is very important geopolitically. I’m nervous people won’t stick with it.
Since your debut Blackfish , the documentation world has changed a lot. Hollywood, especially streaming, has really entered the realm of nonfiction. Did you notice any changes while making The Grab?
We come to TIFF with open arms, so I’m not sure about the appetite and the difference yet. But I would say Blackfish, When we launched it at Sundance, there was a small bidding war. When selling Blackfish, some people say that the usual animal documentaries don’t do well. So funny because [there is a movie] like my octopus teacher , the biggest little farm ), bay . So, they only know what they know. Regardless, they’re risk-averse. Now, I just don’t know what the appetite will be or what people are looking for. I heard there for a while and these places are very interested in movies related to religious worship, unsolved murders and anything with celebrities. Well, it’s neither. (laughs.) But who knows?
You to the audience watching What Hope Documentary ?
I’d like them to see that we have to consume differently. We have to farm differently. We must hold governments and businesses accountable. Of course, I want people to see the big picture and understand that this is really a David and Goliath story. It has to do with the most powerful people on the planet grabbing the airy land beneath our feet. Am I expecting a big systemic change? certainly. But, honestly, it’s a good thing if you’re just making a few different decisions in your day. This movie will do some work. What I hear is that people are learning more about how the world works. You never know how this will affect your lifestyle. But, hopefully it can only be good.
Interview edited for length and clarity.