Blackfish Movie Review
Sometimes when you capture or play with nature, you get bitten. We’ve seen it time and time again, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see a whale biting the hand that feeds him. Much of the BLACKFISH takes place at SeaWorld, where Orca (or Killer Whales, or BLACKFISH, as Native Americans in Washington used to call them) are held in tanks while they wait to ‘perform’ for the crowds that gather for them. This is the world presented in BLACKFISH, a new documentary from filmmaking team director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (CITY LAX: AN URBAN LACROSSE STORY) and producer Manny Oteyza of Manny O Productions.
BLACKFISH is part historical review of incidents of Orca violence against their trainers and part nature film, the science of these great, beautiful beasts. The incidents of violence noted by the filmmakers take place primarily at SeaWorld and allegedly associated parks throughout the world… though the most damning information we see is very much focused on SeaWorld and the events surrounding one specific whale, Tilikum. Tilikum (now the largest Orca in captivity) arrived at SeaWorld Florida via a small company in Canada that had to close its doors, which based on the conditions presented by former trainers of the park was the best possible thing. Sadly, the time he spent there in a small 10’x30’ cement box, 18 hours a day, with two larger and aggressive females, took its toll on young Tilikum. Even before the transfer, Tilikum was responsible for the death of a trainer, the scene of which was well documented by home video and is respectfully presented by the filmmakers. The movie further chronicles the OSHA case against SeaWorld, still stuck in appellate court, claiming that SeaWorld knowingly risked the lives of their trainers and kept information from them.
As the history progresses, some of the scariest moments are about just how little preparation the trainers are given prior to getting in the tank with the whales (including Tilikum). They aren’t told of his violent past; in fact they are told that he wasn’t involved in the incident that closed his former park. Instead they continue operating and, potentially, placing other people in danger. The movie and the lawsuit are both specifically focused on the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, one of the most well known trainers they ever had. But trainers also are not scientists and, as the film shows, SeaWorld is looking for the best personalities, not the most credentialed experts, to work exclusively with their whales. As an audience we get to know several of the trainers very well and they seem like they are good people who were trying their best, but it’s hard not to walk away feeling like they were duped by SeaWorld the entire time they worked there. (It doesn’t help that SeaWorld employees appear to be trained to present inaccurate information regarding the lives of their whales to the families who go there to learn from them.)
All of this is interesting and makes for a decent documentary film but the most important parts of the movie, to me, are also the ones I think were the worst presented. For example, there is a moment where some scientists discuss the highly evolved social nature of the whale pods in which Orca spend their lives. These families have highly complex and evolved (possible) languages, codes of social interaction, and seem to act as their own societies. Orca in captivity, especially those who are born there, are never given the opportunity to develop in the way they were meant to live. BLACKFISH skirts the line fairly well and doesn’t become too preachy about the “saving the whales”, but I would have liked to see more of this hard science and less of the kind of monster whale story. To be clear – at no point does the film blame Tilikum for what happens; on the contrary the filmmakers try very hard to deliver the evidence through their film that he was mentally damaged long before he ever arrived at SeaWorld.
BLACKFISH premiers on CNN on October 24th, and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Nov. 12th. Over the past weekend I had the pleasure of seeking BLACKFISH at Wichita’s own Tallgrass Film Festival (our review of the festival to be posted soon). BLACKFISH won the Audience Award for Best Feature Documentary, one of many it has won during this festival season. While I do not think it was necessarily the best documentary at the festival, or even my favorite, I am happy I was able to view it. If you enjoy documentaries at all you will NOT be disappointed with BLACKFISH.