Blackfish (2013)

BlackfishOn the 24th of February, 2010, a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando was killed by a killer whale during a live show called Dine with Shamu. The footage of the incident appears to show an orca, named Tilikum, grab Dawn Brancheau by the arm and drag her into the water, drowning her. Yet to begin with the official line was that Dawn had been seized by the ponytail, suggesting that she had invited the incident by not following procedure, an assertion that was ostensibly supported by the fact that orcas rarely attack humans. However, there have in reality been numerous documented incidents, and Tilikum himself had in fact already been implicated in two previous fatalities.

Written, produced and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish seeks to contest SeaWorld Orlando’s claims that Dawn was acting in error. Using a combination of archive footage, expert interviews and eyewitness testimonies, she builds an informed and convincing argument against keeping killer whales in captivity. Charting Tilikum’s capture off the coast of Iceland, his transfer from Sealand of the Pacific to SeaWorld Orlando following the first fatal attack (in which Keltie Byrne lost her life) and his subsequent isolation from the latter park’s more dominant, openly abusive animals, the film generates an oppressive sense of foreboding as it suggests the most recent fatality was anything but a freak accident.

Orcas are incredibly intelligent animals, which neurological studies have indicated might even be more emotionally complex than humans. To separate such an animal from its family during infancy, pack it into a cramped enclosure with whales of different genders, heritage and “nationalities”, and in the case of Tilikum to isolate it from all social interaction is likely to traumatise, or even destabilise it. These trainers are climbing into a temperamental environment with often multiple five-ton animals as it is; to do so when the whales are stressed, frustrated or aggressive is surely just asking for trouble?

The mere suggestion that an employer would put its staff or living, breathing charges in harm’s way is shocking enough, but to actually witness the results is something else entirely. Whether it’s a panicked trainer dragging herself from the water with an injured arm or a clearly wounded whale performing for audiences, the footage is in places incredibly upsetting, while SeaWorld’s attempts at damage control are just as infuriating. The tearful testimony of an apologetic trapper and the desperate cries of a mother being separated from her calf are particularly painful to watch, while the attacks themselves are almost unbearable to behold.

If there’s a criticism to be made of Blackfish it’s that the documentary is almost entirely one-sided, although it’s very difficult to imagine what a reasonable counter argument might possibly be. There are occasional allusions to the company’s official position, but their insistence that there is no evidence of orcas attacking trainers is so easily refuted that it cannot be taken seriously. Thankfully, both the whales and the trainers are shown as victims, and there are scenes near the outset of the two working in harmony that are beautiful and awe-inspiring and hint at a cross-species bond that goes some way towards explaining why any human would choose to swim with a carnivore, and not just quit and get a job somewhere else.

Blackfish is undoubtedly the most harrowing, touching and genuinely shocking documentary released so far this year. Cowperthwaite has clearly felt moved to document this tragic story, and she has done so in a way that is as unrelenting as it is well-argued. Come film’s end you will have a tear in your eye and a placard in your hand. Willy’s free, perhaps it’s Tilikum’s turn.



About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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