Blackfish (2013) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and disturbing, violent images
Running time:
83 min.

Cast: Samantha Berg, Jeffrey Ventre, John Hargrove, Dean Gomersall, Carol Ray, John Jett, Dave Duffus, Tilikum
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Screenplay: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres
Review published August 7, 2013

Blackfish 2013 TilikumTaking its title from the Native American word for the animals we call orcas, Blackfish is a documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (City Lax), distributed by CNN Films, surrounding the controversial practice of the use of so-called killer whales in water parks such as SeaWorld. Although the whales may be trained and can have amiable relationships with humans, they can still pose a threat to their trainers and others for reasons that range from general frustration to confusion.

An incident at the Orlando SeaWorld in 2010 raised the largest red flag, in which a seasoned trainer named Dawn Brancheau was attacked and gruesomely killed by the largest orca in captivity, Tilikum. While witnesses contest that she was attacked through no fault of her own, SeaWorld publicly stated that Dawn's death was due to trainer error. As shocking as it had been, the incident is not without history, as Tilikum had killed another trainer nearly 20 years before at a smaller park, prior to his being purchased by SeaWorld. This documentary explores the Tilikum incidents, as well as other mishaps that have occurred in which killer whales have killed or threatened the lives of their human friends and captors around them, and questions the practice, or even the right, of humans to keep such majestic and erratic creatures in captivity, keeping them away from their natural habitat to swim perpetually in confined spaces for their entire lives, and putting them together with other territorial whales that don't always get along -- all in the name of "good, family fun".

While some might be surprised to learn that these seemingly docile creatures, many whom have been trained since birth and are used to being around humans, might decide to intentionally injure people, Blackfish isn't so much concerned with just the need for better protection for water park trainers and the public at large so much as it questions the need for human tampering with the giant mammals altogether. A common theme in Blackfish is how financial interests are pushed ahead of human safety, with some water parks around the world serving up terrible conditions for the animals that lead to repression and psychosis among the complex animals. Meanwhile, the trainers are left to deal with the brunt of the aftermath to the improper conditions and inadequate care of these animals, while the corporate mentality behind any incidents is to publicly obfuscate and cover up whenever possible.

In addition to various former SeaWorld trainers who have since left the profession and have been vocal about the many problems they've had, Blackfish also interviews orca trappers who discuss some of the inhumane practices in the rounding up of baby killer whales, as well as orca experts that explain the differences in the health and well-being of those in captivity vs. how they exist in the wild. It should be noted that SeaWorld has not engaged in capture of killer whales for decades, though the film also explores the removal of the orca young from their mothers as traumatizing to them, as well as pointingg out that the sometimes erratic Tilikum has been used for the breeding of the majority of SeaWorld's current stock of whales.  Though no official representative of Sea World would come forward for an interview, other testimony comes from former employees of smaller water parks such as Sea Land in Victoria, BC give their own testimony, including some history in the origin of Tilikum, who was partially responsible for its owner's desire to close shop after the tragic incident that claimed the life of part-time trainer Keltie Byrne.

But it's in the actual footage of events, much of which was secured utilizing the Freedom Of Information Act through tapes supplied in OSHA's court case against Sea World, that Blackfish is most effective at presenting its case. It is quite scary to watch video captures involving an orca with its sharp teeth latch on to a trainer's arm or foot and drag them underwater for seconds or minutes as they fight for air with no chance of being let go except at the whale's mercy. This footage is tough to watch, though the really gruesome footage involving most vicious and bloody attacks are left out. Whether it is by design or because the footage is unavailable, it isn't clear, but I, for one, found the descriptions of witnesses difficult enough to hear about, so I was thankful to not have to view a traumatizing "Faces of Death"-type video clip to go along with it.

If there's anything missing from Blackfish, it's the other side of the argument. There is one dissenting ex-trainer opinion that defends SeaWorld's right to continue to do their business, but he's but a lukewarm drop in this ocean of anti-waterpark talking heads (not to mention the filmmaker's clear agenda in the bits she chooses). Select passages from court transcripts are taken from the testimony of SeaWorld executives, but those are also chosen to paint them in a fairly dark light. One can understand why SeaWorld had declined to be interviewed for the making of this documentary, as Cowperthwaite doesn't seem to be a filmmaker that would easily put their statements in their proper context. Nevertheless, SeaWorld has since come out with a public statement decrying the film as inaccurate, deliberately misleading, and scientifically false.

Regardless of where your opinion falls on the matter, Blackfish remains a skilled documentary. It's about as slanted as can be without calling it a purely anti-SeaWorld vendetta, but as an indictment, it presents a compelling case for the prosecution. I can't imagine that this film will not have an adverse effect on their business. If there's ever a movie that makes you want to clamor, "Free Willy!", this documentary is it. It sticks with you.

 Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo