The sheer size of killer whale Tilikum (nearly 22-and-a-half feet long and weighing six tons) isn’t what makes him unique. The orca currently kept in captivity as a daily performer at SeaWorld Orlando, Florida has become notorious for another reason – bloodshed. While there have been no reported incidents of a killer whale attacking a human in the wild, Tilikum has been involved in three murders – most recently the well-publicized 2010 death of expert SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.
One of Sundance 2013’s most acclaimed documentaries, “Blackfish” examines Dawn’s death through the lens of the life of Tilikum and others like him – plucked from the wild by whale fishers and held in captivity as a source of family entertainment.
The well-researched project, directed by filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is an assertive criticism of the impact of orca captivity told through the frequently devastating testimonials of former SeaWorld trainers and witnesses to attacks. Also investigated are connected issues such as the relationship between animal and trainer, and a history of false spins and outright lies from the SeaWorld PR department designed to ensure the killer whale is thought to be nothing but a lovable, ticket-selling giant.
The story begins forty years earlier, in the late 1970’s when fishermen were first hired to capture whales for use in sea parks. One such fisherman is interviewed describing the surprising domesticity of the species. For shipping cost and longevity, the fishermen are instructed to capture only small, baby orcas. While they are securing a baby, the fisherman describes the sorrowful process as the baby orca’s family doesn’t flee in fear but stays nearby communicating back and forth with the captured youth. The fisherman powerfully describes it as “the worst thing I have ever done.”
Cowperthwaite doesn’t cast her arm out further than the research can back up. Running less than an hour and a half, the director said that she doesn’t want to give the audience a chance to lose focus. And this is the case; there is virtually no time for distraction as the always-interesting content is rolled out at a logical but steady pace thanks to the emotional and very watchable interviews. The only thing that is missing is a significant attempt to suggest some kind of middle-ground solution that we as an audience can call for other than the total disbanding of all sea parks.
Courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act, “Blackfish” has accessed an incredible amount of footage to tell the story in cooperation with the interviews. Specific moments noted by the interviewees can be shown onscreen thanks to the always-rolling security cameras in place at SeaWorld.
Home video vacation footage is used to catch SeaWorld employees falsifying information, for example the lifespan of killer whales – their 100 years in the wild is cut to only 20 years according to an employee that even states orcas live longer in captivity at around 25 years. Whether you are particularly interested in animal rights or not, the blatant use of misinformation calls for a response of anger not dissimilar to a documentary on a subject like wealth inequality.
Instead of the banks, or the government, it’s the administration of corporate SeaWorld that is vilified – and for good reason. Consider the fact that Tilikum has killed three times, yet you need only head to Orlando, Florida to see him any day of the week during a performance to this day. “What have we learned?” the documentary asks, “nothing,” the interviewees reply.
Most people are likely aware of the existence of water-circuses like SeaWorld, but how the whales get there and how placing a migratory animal accustomed to traveling upwards of a hundred miles a day in a tank will impact their psychological health that is not often enough considered. Avoiding the insulting impact of cause-oriented documentaries that skew two-sided issues to the benefit of an organization, “Blackfish” is made by a documentary filmmaker (not an activist) interested in telling a compelling story that also pulls the curtain away on a quietly destructive practice.
“Blackfish” is currently being distributed via Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films and will hit theaters on July 26th in U.S. wide release and U.K. limited.
U.S. Wide Release: July 26th, 2013 | U.K. Limited Release: July 26th, 2013