Blackfish isn’t shy about making SeaWorld its villain. The documentary ostensibly follows Tilikum, a three-year-old orca captured in 1983, but the marine theme park is repeatedly made out to be a morally dubious corporation. It doesn’t just throw accusations; it completely pulls the plug.
There’s no record of orcas harming humans in the wild. Yet Tilikum has killed three humans while in captivity. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite questions whether killer whales are driven to live up to their name through poor treatment and unnatural habitats. SeaWorld decline to be interviewed, so Cowperthwaite finds evidence through compelling video footage and ex-trainers tearfully regretting their compliance. I will admit, she’s very persuasive.
Blackfish is ingeniously interspersed with cheesy SeaWorld advertisements of beautiful creatures who love performing for paying audiences. In reality, they’re imprisoned underwater (sometimes in isolation) and attack each other when left in cramped conditions. Tilikum particularly suffers from being bullied and unable to swim away, as he would in the wild. Of course, there’s bias in the editing and ordering, but the inevitable attack on a trainer isn’t that surprising.
Werner Herzog refrains from showing Timothy Treadwell’s death in Grizzly Man
(“You must never listen to this tape...” and Blackfish
pauses before any footage becomes too graphic. The viewer’s never in doubt over who’s in control – the history of attacks demonstrates that. But the most haunting moment comes from an experienced trainer who’s repeatedly pulled under water by a frustrated orca. The man smiles through the pain and strokes the whale like an old friend, before he’s dragged down again. At that point you realise he’s willing to die for the sake of a lie.
That’s the crux of the documentary: it seems SeaWorld lie to customers about the animals’ wellbeing, they lie to their staff about the safety of orcas (trainers were unaware Tilikum was moved to SeaWorld after killing a woman at Sealand of the Pacific), and courtroom recreations suggest they lie to juries. It’s persuasive journalism tackling a conspiracy, and in a way speaking to anyone who’s visited a zoo or aquarium.
It should be detrimental that SeaWorld won’t comment (although it should be noted they recently made an odd press release which unconvincingly refutes several points) and Tilikum obviously doesn’t give interviews. Similarly, it’s hard to take ex-trainers too seriously when the documentary is so one-sided in its argument. But that mystery makes the film perversely watchable (albeit through gaps between your fingers) in a way that might frustrate other viewers.
Like The Cove
, a similarly themed documentary about dolphin hunting, Blackfish
borrows cinematic elements for emotional manipulation. The ethereal SeaWorld adverts are shown for ironic juxtaposition, but Cowperthwaite isn’t afraid to use their same trick to highlight tragedy. I understand why, and it doesn’t irritate me too much. Really, I’m fine with whatever brings this cause to wider attention.
For screening details please visit the official Blackfish website.