Blackfish trains its lens on killer whales in captivity and the cover-up of tragedies involving one orca in particular who seemed to turn psychotic: Tilikum. The documentary makes a point to note that there are no known cases of the ironically-named killer whales attacking and dealing death unto humans in the wild. That SeaWorld has worked so hard to sweep under the rug the deaths of three people in order to maintain the display of these creatures at aquariums for entertainment will leave many infuriated by Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, which first premiered at the Miami International Film Festival earlier this year.
During much of the briskly-paced documentary, several former trainers recount their own naiveté and firsthand encounters with tragic or near-tragic interactions with these sea animals at various sea parks, as the film builds to the most current incident: the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 by Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando. The film introduces these men and women as they freely admit their own ignorance to the dangers of these animals, even though these people were hired to swim with them. All admit to having no education in marine biology. As the viewer learns more about the animals in the film, you have to wonder whether anyone who knows more about these whales than these trainers would ever enter a tiny pool with these beasts, which can weigh upwards of four tons.
No current working trainer would comment in the film, much less SeaWorld or its spokespersons. However, SeaWorld did release a statement ahead of Blackfish’s release offering counterpoints to some of the film’s assertions (read a version of it on Indiewire with responses from the filmmaker). Adding to the film’s emotional quality but also highlighting the disillusioning idealistic attitude of these young trainers is the fact that some of the ex-trainers sometimes speak tearfully of the tragedies that has so traumatically changed their minds about their former jobs. Then there is the testimony of a man who actually hunted whales for captivity in the 1970s. He also breaks down in tears over the horrors he and his crew committed to capture young whales, ripping these highly social creatures from their families. A spokesperson for OSHA, the worker’s rights group that sued SeaWorld in order to assure the safety of trainers, offers the most sober testimony against the logic of placing trainers in the water with these whales.
Balance within the film, however, is hard to find as no one currently working with whales comes on camera to speak in defense of these shows. But the silence of the opposing voice, depicted in a single intertitle at the end that states SeaWorld refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this documentary, speaks volumes. As this is a co-production with CNN, one hopes the story will spread beyond theatrical release.
Though some science feels missing, the film makes a strong case against the display of these wild animals for entertainment purposes. It’s easy to not look behind the bliss in the smiles and laughter of a crowd enjoying orca shows, but at what cost to not only these beasts, but to the men and women who risk their lives to “play” with them? As one talking head in the film notes, one can only hope that at some point in the future these shows will disappear as a sign of our former barbarism.
Blackfish runs 83 minutes and is rated PG-13 (it’s violent and disturbing, but young people of a certain age could have something to learn from this). It opened in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. Blackfish opens this week in South Florida, premiering Thursday, Aug. 1, at O Cinema in Miami. Then, it appears in Aventura at the Aventura Mall 24 Theatres and Boca Raton a the Living Room Cinema 4, starting Aug. 2.