Blackfish is a heart-wrenching documentary about the plight of some of the most intelligent creatures on the earth, being hunted, captured, imprisoned and tortured for the mindless entertainment of the masses. Focussing on the controversial aqua-marine themed amusement park SeaWorld, Blackfish chronicles what could have possibly led to the fateful day of February 24, 2010, when a beautiful and majestic killer whale, by the name of Tilikum, drowned, killed and devoured his human trainer.
This documentary is not easy to watch as I found my heart continuously breaking for not only the human loss in the film, but for that of the whales as well. The film sets itself up brilliantly with an overview of the orca. It educates its audience and teaches about the orca communities, the languages, the perseverance and the wit that abound. It then settles into a reality as it documents those sent to hunt the baby orca to send to places like SeaLand of the West Coast and SeaWorld and Loro Parque.
Throughout its course the film relies heavily on the dialogue of many former SeaWorld trainers who grew up working with these whales, even though most of them entered the position with little to no education or experience on how to work with marine life. As they tell the story being a whale trainer isn’t about knowledge on whales and marine life, but is on physical fitness and personality. The trainers learn though. They are blown away by the enormity of their job and appreciate the trust put in them; which also means that they will usually do whatever they are asked to do, no questions asked. They would form a relationship with their animal and become a true team. They would grow with their animal and their animal with them. However, no matter how great of a relationship one may have with such an animal, we have to remember that this animal is an animal that is used to having thousands of square miles of water to move around in, and are now spending their lives in captivity; in tanks barely big enough to hold the number that are there. Aggression. Frustration. Rebellion. These are some of the characteristic qualities that start to arise in these captives. And of course they are looking for a way to unleash.
Blackfish does its job as a documentary very succinctly. The goal of the film is not only to raise awareness of a creature that has great intelligence and emotional depth, but to also allow one to empathize with that creature and choose not to partake in the mind-numbing entertainment of watching these prisoners jump through hoops for food. I haven’t left a documentary feeling this emotionally spent since 2009’s Oscar-winning documentary: The Cove.
The film just layers incident after incident showing the unsafe conditions for both the humans and the whales. A huge focus of the film is how this final attack could have and should have been avoided. It documents Tilikum from the time he was captured in 1983 as a 2 year old 11.5 foot orca. He was placed at SeaLand of the West Coast in Victoria, BC in a 20 x 30 metal crate along with two other female killer whales who took it upon themselves to beat up and attack Tilikum. It created a psychosis. Eventually he had had enough and on February 20, 1991, almost 19 years to the day before he would attack and kill Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld, he grabbed his trainer Keltie Byrne, a professional swimmer and part time employee, pulled her into the water and drowned her. This was the end of SeaLand of the West Coast. Tilikum would be moved to SeaWorld where he would continue to show aggressive behaviours and attitudes towards the staff, which would eventually lead to Brancheau’s death in 2010.
Something that Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, does well is not to lay the fault at the feet of the trainers. The trainers appear to genuinely care about the animals and their wellbeing. She lays the blame at the feet of the evil corporations who care more about the money their stuffing into their wallets, and their public image than they do about the whales or the humans actually involved.
The best part of the film for me personally was the educational aspect that I touched on earlier. Cowperthwaite does a great job at demystifying stigma surrounding killer whale and orca communities. It gives the audience the background education on the whale to make up their own mind about what is right and wrong for them when it comes to organizations like SeaWorld or in Canada Marine Land.
The reason this film is called Blackfish is because that is what First Nations communities would call the orca. The Blackfish is an animal that possesses great spiritual power and is not to be meddled with. And this film truly shows the beauty and majesty that exist within the orca. I am truly grateful for having been able to watch this film, and am heartbroken at the reality that we are needlessly subjecting these stately and royal creatures to such torture for monotonous entertainment.
If you’re planning a trip to SeaWorld or Marine Land anytime in the next little bit, I would strongly suggest you give this documentary a watch, educate yourself and use the knowledge to boycott corporations like these.
4.5 Shamu’s out of 5.