‘Blackfish’ documentary an indictment of whale treatment in captivity

September 4, 2013

from The Raleigh News & Observer

One of the best documentary films of the year so far, the taut and disturbing “Blackfish,” addresses the contentious issue of killer whales kept in captivity at water parks. More specifically, it’s an exposé and full frontal assault on SeaWorld – and those guys don’t take things lying down. More on that in a bit.

The film begins with the tragic 2010 incident in which a SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was killed by an orca named Tilikum at the flagship park in Orlando. Initial reports suggested the attack was an isolated incident and that an inexperienced trainer made a mistake in handling the animal.

blackfishNone of which was true, as subsequent reports established. Brancheau was in fact the park’s most experienced trainer and the attack was apparently unprovoked. Her death, we learn from autopsy reports, was violent and terrible. The film contends that not only did SeaWorld deliberately try to mislead the public about the incident, but that the company has a long and sordid track record of such maneuvers. As one former trainer puts it, “The industry has a vested interest in portraying these animals as safe and cuddly.”

The killer whale Tilikum, in fact, had been involved in two other deaths, in 1991 and 1999. The film interviews a half-dozen former trainers, as well as eyewitnesses to the previous incidents and marine biology experts. The conclusion is that the whale likely suffers from a “psychosis” brought about by years in captivity. Several sequences show the miserable conditions that Tilikum was forced to endure, especially in his former home, a rundown carnival park in Canada.

Much of the film is dedicated to arguing, quite persuasively, that keeping killer whales in family fun parks is a Very Bad Idea, for humans and orcas both. But what makes “Blackfish” more compelling than the usual advocacy doc is director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s assured application of the storytelling craft. The film fairly vibrates with tension and dread as it circles back through SeaWorld’s secret history.

One particular lowlight: According to the ex-trainers interviewed, mother whales and their baby calves are regularly separated according to the needs of the various parks. In the wild, we learn, orca family units stay together for life. One wrenching passage describes a mother whale “trembling and screaming” for days after her calf is taken. A former trainer asks the question: “How can anyone look at that and think that it is morally acceptable?”

Make no mistake, “Blackfish” is an advocacy film with a definite agenda. In this case, it’s advocating for the release of all killer whales kept in captivity for entertainment. But it plays fair within the unwritten rules for such films: The agenda is clear, the facts are on the record, and the filmmakers let the on-camera witnesses and experts make the indictments.

After “Blackfish” started making waves upon release in July, SeaWorld took the unusual step of hiring a film industry publicity firm to email film writers and critics directly, calling the movie “inaccurate and misleading.” Director Cowperthwaite quickly replied with a point-by-point rebuttal. You can find the debate with a quick online search. Suffice it to say, SeaWorld does not fare well in the public relations skirmish. In fact, the company just posted a quarterly loss and analysts expect shares to tumble.

The film ends with images of protestors outside SeaWorld gates and a bitter little coda: After the death of Dawn Brancheau, the U.S. Department of Labor ruled that trainers must remain behind barriers when working with killer whales. SeaWorld, however, is appealing the decision.

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