If gaining an understanding of the motivation behind the distressing acts committed in 2009’s The Cove wasn’t enough to put audiences off a trip to a marine park, then Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013) may just do the trick. Opening to a harrowing 911 call, the film hardly lets up as it attempts to shine a light on a particular orca who has been involved in the deaths of three people since his capture in 1983. Part SeaWorld expose, part white-knuckle thriller and part psychological profile, this is an engrossing and heart-rending critique of whale captivity – even though it doesn’t perhaps arrive at an ultimate fix.
In 2010, one of SeaWorld’s most experienced and skilled trainers, Dawn Brancheau, was pulled into the water and killed by the park’s largest bull, Tilikum. It was a devastating event, and one which the film argues could well have been foreseen. Combining archive footage with a variety of talking heads – including orca experts and ex marine park employees – the documentary charts Tilikum’s life from his initial capture. This takes in brutal conditions at a park in Canada, where trainer Keltie Byrne perished after slipping and falling into his tank, and his twenty years at SeaWorld, Florida.
Blackfish makes for upsetting viewing as Cowperthwaite uses Tilikum as a case study for wider concerns. Experts educate us about these magnificent creatures in the wild and provide keen insight into the trauma caused by subsequent incarceration. Trainers recount tales of mothers calling out after separation from calves, whilst others break down at the thought of abuse that orcas inflict upon one another, knowing that such aggression would be tempered in the big blue. It’s hard not to consider such captivity as mental torture on a life form used to social interactions far more advanced than our own. One trainer states that, even after working with orcas at SeaWorld for years, she knows almost nothing about the animals.
This is a damning indictment of a corporation that would rather keep its staff in the dark even while they work in close proximity with one of cleverest and most dangerous animals on the planet. Despite having recently published a series of rebuttals to the film before its cinematic release, SeaWorld was never available for comment during filming. The arguments built by Cowperthwaite are utterly compelling and it would be hard to imagine audience members not being moved by the cause.
The only chink in its armour, however, is that the doc never quite decides on its conclusion; it never outright states that orcas should not be held in captivity, it never really delves into why humans are so willing to watch them perform tricks in a restrictive tank. Yet, even despite this, Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish is compulsive and emotive viewing, and far more chilling than your typical horror, that really deserves to be seen.