Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite)


Most of us probably went to Sea World at some point. I vividly recall my experience at the Orlando park as quite dreadful; heat radiated from the blackened concrete and, being eight years old, I was too short to see what was happening in the performances as I watched them. If you’ve any interest in animal rights, if you’ve ever had the same morbid fascination I do with theme park disasters, and if you paid much attention to the news in the last several years, you’re well aware that Sea World as come under considerable scrutiny that goes far beyond my craned-neck inconvenience. The thesis of this valuable documentary is that the treatment by parks like Sea World of the animals they train and trot out is knowingly cruel, irresponsible, and finally dangerous — zeroing in on one particular killer whale, Tilikum, who has had involvement in the deaths of three people (Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes and Dawn Brancheau) and is almost certainly one of the orcas you saw if you ever visited that same Orlando Sea World.

Produced by the cable channel CNN’s documentary films unit, Blackfish screened theatrically earlier this year but is not very cinematic — even when compared to television shows like Frontline or Planet Earth that bring ace filmmaking into living rooms on public TV and cable. Oddly, its slapdash nature doesn’t seem to make it any less absorbing and informative. The film’s economical, straightforward style gives it plenty of time and space to impart lots of unadorned, serious-minded information; there isn’t much to analyze about the results because they’re by necessity so direct, but they make for a compelling, even riveting, and ultimately very upsetting experience.

The pure cold fact of Tilikum’s history is a mouse click away for anyone with Wikipedia and the interest, and Blackfish doesn’t present anything beyond the generally acknowledged narrative: the whale was captured near Iceland in 1983 and shoved into cramped captivity at a shitty water park in British Columbia, where the first acting out and the first death occurred. By some accounts, this was because Tilikum and the other whales were cruelly kept in a dark tank for many hours of the day, and Tilikum was at the bottom of the hierarchy, young and taunted. Whatever the direct cause, the simple reality is clear that separating these animals from their mother at such a young age is inherently damaging. Tilikum was purchased by Sea World with full consciousness of his difficult history and gradually became one of the showpieces of one of the daily shows at the Orlando park. Two more were killed there, one a supposed vagrant who climbed in the whale’s tank after hours, the other a trainer in the middle of a performance. Both horrific for entirely different reasons — both approached and reacted to with shocking glibness by Sea World.

Blackfish doesn’t make some kill-the-rabid-dog argument about Tilikum — it places the human lives lost as the most important element and final impact of what is finally an act of indecency toward the animal — but it does reserve considerable bile for the Shamu program at large, arguing convincingly (and with direct evidence) that Sea World’s understanding of the orcas is built on corporate-friendly pseudoscience. The wider issue approached here is, inevitably, an environmental question of whether the organism at the top of the food chain can really expect to exercise its dominance over everything with no well-deserved consequences, and how compassion could not just save orcas but could add to our understanding and sense of actual wonder about them. (Seeing them in the wild, the film is aware, is far more stunning than watching them jump through hoops for treats — which is, anyway, a false pronouncement of a relationship that doesn’t really exist.) Tilikum is too complete and individualistic a creature to be dealing with this nonsense, and the film’s hard work to put a face on the victims of his captivity — himself included — is what makes this all so heartbreaking.

The film raises a particularly fascinating paradox when it shows that so many former Sea World employees and trainers have gone on to become the most impassioned opponents of their practices. It’s strange to consider that institutionalized cruelty can, however indirectly, lead to such consciousness. The ironic juxtaposition of the public face of Shamu and the park with the horrifying realities of a violation of a peaceful animal is sometimes enough to move you to tears (especially in a shattering early interview with a whale hunter). But it’s not all such a dour affair — there is humor, dark as it sometimes is (a kid in an old Sea World ad announcing that when the orca approaches the glass you’re “a goner”; virtually everything that any Sea World official or attorney says in a courtroom), and more than anything, there is a zest for the genuine beauty and intelligence of these animals, displayed with the kind of splendor and insight that could change an important mind. A powerful effort.

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