Don’t Fall For These Asylum-Like Lesser Versions of ‘Blackfish’ and ‘Maidentrip’

By  · Published on November 13th, 2013

We’re all aware of and used to the blockbuster knockoffs from The Asylum. Maybe you were reminded this past week by coming across their 2011 movie Almighty Thor while looking up Marvel’s own Thor: The Dark World. Well, they haven’t taken on documentaries yet, but there are comparably cheap versions of hit nonfiction films to be found around the web. We can’t call them all knockoffs or ripoffs or copycats or anything of that responsive nature, though, because most of the time they are produced earlier and are actually the ones being overshadowed by the new, better-known features.

Last week I was going through the latest documentary additions to Netflix Watch Instantly, as I regularly do for my home viewing picks for our sister site Nonfics, and one title stood out to me: Wild Eyes: The Abby Sunderland Story. The synopsis told me simply that it was about a teen girl who “dares try to become the youngest person to sail around the globe solo.” That sounded awfully familiar. I’d known about the SXSW audience award winner Maidentrip, which also is about a teen girl who set out to sail around the globe solo. But I didn’t know that film’s subject’s name and thought maybe it was Sunderland. After all, how many teen girls are there who attempt such a dangerous adventure? Apparently at least two, because the girl’s name in Maidentrip, I quickly learned, is Laura Dekker.

Sunderland’s trip took place earlier, and her documentary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival Big Bear Lake International Film Festival in the fall of 2011, while Dekker was in the middle of her voyage. And before Wild Eyes (which is directed by Abby’s father, Laurence Sunderland) there was even another documentary. Debuting on Australian television in the fall of 2010, the Richard Branson-narrated 210 Days: Around the World With Jessica Watson presents the tale of another teen girl who went for the record of youngest person to sail around the globe solo. All three heavily integrate each sailor’s own self-documenting video diaries, but Maidentrip is the only one to predominantly work with that material and let the story play out experientially as opposed to incorporating a lot of talking heads who tell us what happened rather than letting the story be communicated more visually.

Maidentrip does feature narration, but it’s voiceover and unscripted, all from Dekker as she reflects on the journey and fills in some expositional information. Such as when she compares her trip to those of Sunderland and Watson, noting that they went for non-stop voyages while Dekker wanted to occasionally anchor and visit different places on the way. At those stops, director Jillian Schlesinger would meet the young girl and film her while she was on land, keeping with the fact that this is a film allowing us to follow the subject and the action instead of simply learn about it afterward. This makes for a more cinematic documentary. Wild Eyes tries for some added visual element with what are clearly staged or reenacted scenes, but the focus on testimonial type interviews makes it more like a reality series – that and the fact the Sunderland family has eight kids – and it turns out Laurence Sunderland later unsuccessfully shopped around the idea of a reality show starring his daughter.

Impatient Netflix users might wind up just watching Wild Eyes anyway, given that Maidentrip doesn’t hit theaters until January 17 (the curious may also find pirated copies of 210 Days online, but that doc is otherwise unavailable in the U.S.). Those meaning to seek out another hit doc from this year’s festival circuit, Blackfish, will have better luck viewing the real deal. The film looks at the issue of orca captivity with attention on accidental injury and death to humans caused by animals at marine life theme parks like SeaWorld, and following a very successful TV premiere on CNN recently, it has just arrived on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Previously it also landed on iTunes, where it’s #1 on the documentary download chart and currently #6 for all movies offered through the service. It definitely doesn’t seem like anyone is missing this one or mistaking anything else for it.

But yesterday I did search Blackfish on Amazon to see info on the new release, and an Instant Video title popped up along with that film. Titled Lolita: Slave to Entertainment, it’s got a lot in common with Blackfish in that it’s about the issue of orca captivity, concentrates on one animal in particular (Miami’s Lolita, while Blackfish focuses on Orlando’s Tilikum) and features harsh criticism against a particular marine park company (The Miami Seaquarium, comparable to Blackfish’s attention on SeaWorld). But it doesn’t have anything to do with attacks or accidents involving humans, and also it’s ten years old. That’s especially interesting if you consider that Lolita is still performing at the still-operating Miami Seaqarium, indicating that the doc hasn’t delivered any better results than the general Free Lolita campaign it highlights.

Lolita is noteworthy for being a link between Blackfish and The Cove, another popular and high-profile documentary about sea mammal cruelty that won the Oscar in 2010. The latter film’s main subject, former trainer turned activist Ric O’Barry, is also a central figure in Lolita, and Blackfish interviewee Ken Balcomb, an orca researcher, is also a prominent talking head in the much older doc. There is some worth in having multiple films on this sort of subject matter, and Lolita is plenty informative, but it definitely lacks a production value its better known followers entail. And is occasionally hurt by its own rhetoric, which at one point is overshadowed by a montage of money being counted, soundtracked with cash register “ka-ching!” sound effects and an incomplete quote from 17th century poet Samuel Butler ambivalently stating, “It has been said that the love of money is the root of all evil.”

Blackfish may be the better and more well-known doc, but it’s also one that appeals to audiences more by selling the violence it addresses. And it offers a narrative angle situated above its cause, which is at its core the same as the agenda for Lolita. It isn’t even necessarily that Blackfish looks like it cost more or was produced more grandly in terms of research and the licensing of footage and all that. It’s a more entertaining movie and deals with more human-oriented aspects for people to relate to outside of the animal activism side, and viewers can walk away feeling anger or sadness or having been moved in general without also feeling a need to take up the cause as their own, whereas a doc like Lolita is geared more toward calling its audience to action.

It isn’t as surprising to find older docs on the subject of orca captivity as it is to find them on teen girls sailing around the world. The issues in Blackfish have been around for decades, it’s just that this is the best film of its kind so far with regards to being accessible and attractive and, to be certain, more heavily marketed to a broad audience. And it’s not that it necessarily has to make anything previous obsolete. Anyone who likes Blackfish and is interested in learning more on the issue and related concerns about orcas should definitely see the Frontline documentary A Whale of a Business as well as the Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson-produced The Whale, of which I’m a big fan – catch it on Netflix Watch Instantly. Also easily found streaming on Netflix, which I haven’t seen (so can’t vouch for), is a Discovery documentary called Killer Whales, apparently about how dangerous the animals are in the wild – something argued against in the other films.

While it does sometimes seem odd for a company like The Asylum to exist to make knockoffs of fiction films or for studios to plan competing biopics or dramas about similar historical events, there is rarely anything strange about documentaries being made about the same subjects. Often in the case of major nonfiction films dealing with famous people, say the boy band One Direction (see Kate’s post on their many docs from last week), all the others tend to be cash-grab copycats meant to snag fans and anyone who might confusedly mistake these for those. Maybe Netflix does hope to get some views on Wild Eyes through the word of mouth being generated about Maidentrip. And perhaps all the other docs about sea animal captivity and issues with marine life theme parks should benefit, if well made or well intended and deserving of attention, from the Blackfish spillover.

If there is a lesson with these examples, though, it might be that documentarians ought to strive for higher production value and stronger rhetoric and more appealing visuals and narratives, the way the makers of Maidentrip and Blackfish clearly did and are reaping more accolades and recognition and money and, mainly for the latter, power to change things, as a result. For some, documentaries are fundamentally about what they are about, and that’s fine and those people can watch the lesser quality docs that maybe inform at the very least. But for the majority of us, a good documentary is about how they’re about it, and we’re more likely to and better off zoning in on films like Maidentrip and Blackfish and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (decidedly better than the Julian Assange-produced Mediastan) and, sure, even One Direction: This Is Us.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.