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In 2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite released her last documentary feature, Blackfish, about the captivity of Orcas, especially at SeaWorld. The film directly impacted the attendance and revenue of the theme park. Eventually, SeaWorld and its former CEO James Atchison had to pay more than $5 million to settle federal charges that they covered up the negative impact of the documentary.
Nearly a decade later, after dabbling in narrative with features like 2017’s Megan Leavey and 2019’s Our Friend, Cowperthwaite has returned to non-fiction with The Grab, which had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. The title, which is up for sale via WME, takes a look at the geopolitical forces behind global land and water rights, and the race for the world’s last farmable land. For The Grab, the filmmakers teamed with The Center for Investigative Reporting, spending years diving into the money and governments behind the global food trade which lead the team everywhere from Russia to Zambia, reporting on everyone from Vladimir Putin to Blackwater founder Erik Prince.
“There was just one thing you could do and that would be to just not go to SeaWorld. You could be like changing the world by not doing something. That was an easy way to be an activist,” says Cowperthwaite of the direct action that audiences could take following Blackfish. With the expansive subject matter of The Grab, the metrics are a bit different.
Ahead of the festival, Cowperthwaite talked to THR about The Grab.
How did you get involved with the Center for Investigative Reporting?
Around 2016, I was brought in to speak with The Center for Investigative Reporting. [Investigative reporter] Nate Halverson had amassed some reporting at that point. He hadn’t done the full monte yet, but they brought me in to see if there was a documentary in here. I remember at the time it was just really, really big. The more I, with Nate, unwrapped the story, I was like, ‘Wait a second, this is a grab.’ This isn’t just an existential story unfolding. This is actually like human agency.
At what point did you realize that what you were filming could be a full documentary?
To me, it was probably the intersection between, let’s say, dwindling resources and a grab for the final [farmable] land that’s left on the planet and guns and conflict. That suddenly launched it into this geopolitical landscape and it turned into almost this story about how the world works — not simply about where you’re getting your tomatoes. It grew into something that felt like a thriller with really high stakes.
There were a lot of ways that the central issue of this story — the consolidation of the last farmable land on earth — could be told. Why did you do so through the framing device of Nate’s investigation?
There were a million ways to tell this story. What was the most interesting way in to me was experiencing investigative reporting in real-time. This entire story happened the whole time. Nate and his team of reporters were discovering things on a daily basis. It was years of research and weeks and weeks and weeks of nothing and then there would be one thing that would come up. For someone who’s not an investigative reporter, but who loves that world that, to me , was what made it feel like a thriller. What was interesting to me as a throughline is also this idea that investigative reporting is under siege and this is like, “Look, a good story takes years.” That sort of truthful storytelling takes a long time. It’s expensive. You might get sued. It’s not about salaciousness or about celebrities. All these things make it something that feels like an embattled industry. I wanted to show that when you arm these people with a little bit of heft, look at what they can uncover.
In the doc, Nate talks about the concerns he had for his safety. You were filming this in real-time so were you ever concerned about your own safety?
We were all very concerned. We all did extensive diagnostics on all our computers, on all our phones. We were brought into a room at one point and told that we should never have a conversation about some of the stuff in the film, and we shouldn’t be talking about the film, in rooms where there are windows because of surveillance. Your adrenals are pumping at a certain level for years on end, and I think everybody on the team experienced it. Who are we? [I’m] a mom in Los Angeles, driving my kids to school. I don’t have any ability to fight or defend myself against all that stuff.
Had you felt like that previously in your career?
I was scared of being sued by SeaWorld. I knew we had an airtight documentary there, I knew it would be very bad for them to give Blackfish that much more attention. That would’ve been the closest one, but I was more worried about being sued. This is different. We are exposing things that a lot of powerful people don’t want exposed. We’re picking a bunch of battles, and with Blackfish we picked one. Here, you name it and we take it to task. That’s never the most settling feeling. Nations have gone to war over oil and now we’re talking about food and water. Every single person, every species on the planet, has skin in the game on this one. It’s impossible for it not to feel bigger than us.
You and the team were detained in the airport in Zambia and you show this onscreen. Why did you want that to be a part of the story?
We were there with our iPhones filming whatever we can. We were already getting phone calls from Ethiopian Airlines telling us, back in the states, that we were not allowed to board their flight. A private company is calling you and saying, “We don’t know who’s giving this order, but it comes from higher up and you’re not allowed to board our flight.” We ended up being on another flight. But we were like, “Something’s up?” So, we filmed the airport. That scene is so investigative reporting 101: You get to the doors of the castle and they’re not gonna let you in. To me, it also spoke to the fact that what we were gonna cover was something they didn’t want covered. If whatever we’re trying to do is gonna be that incendiary to the point where they’re not even gonna let us in, we’re probably on the right track. It was not even a question of “You’re not allowed to film this, please don’t drive to these locations.” It was: “You can’t even leave the airport.”
For such an expansive topic, the movie is clocking in at under two hours. Was keeping the film to a certain length something you were particularly conscious of?
Yes. The film is only as good as the people who watch it. It’s giving them a bullion of information and never letting up so that I’m just being respectful of their time. To me, that was the best way to tell the story, the most efficient way to tell it. It needed to feel like a shot in the arm.
Did you ever consider it as a docuseries?
Absolutely. It has the legs for sure. We had a whole section on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Ethiopian Egypt, which is insanely important geopolitically. I was nervous people wouldn’t stick it out.
Since you debuted Blackfish, a lot has changed in the doc field. Hollywood, especially the streamers, has really pushed into the non-fiction space. Did you notice any changes when making The Grab?
We’re coming to TIFF with open arms, so I’m not sure yet about the appetites and the differences. But I will say Blackfish, when we did come out with it at Sundance, there was a small bidding war. When selling Blackfish, there were people who were out there who were saying that typically animal documentaries just don’t do that well. It’s just so funny because [there has been films] like My Octopus Teacher, Biggest Little Farm, The Cove. So, they only know what they know. They’re gonna be risk averse, no matter what. Now, I just don’t know what the appetite will be or what people are looking for. I was hearing for a while there that places were really interested in films that had to do with religious cults, cold case murders and anything to do with a celebrity. Well, this is none of that. (Laughs.) But who knows?
What are your hopes for audiences who watch the documentary?
I’m hoping that they see we’ve got to consume differently. We’ve got to farm differently. We’ve got to hold governments and corporations accountable. Of course, I want people to see the big picture, understanding that this is truly a David and Goliath story. This has to do with the most powerful people on the planet grabbing up the airable land that’s from underneath us. Would I like there to be a big systemic change? Of course. But, honestly, if you just make a few decisions differently in how you go about your day then that’s a good thing. This film will have done a little bit of work. What I’m hearing is people are understanding how the world works a little more. You never know how that’s gonna inform how you live life. But, hopefully, it can only be good.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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