Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Written by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite & Eli B. Despres.
I am hardly an animal rights hardliner (I’m not going to stop eating meat any time too soon), but I am really starting to be convinced that perhaps it’s not the best idea to cage wild animals solely for the purpose of human amusement. The Oscar winning documentary The Cove (2009) was about dolphins, and how tortured they are in captivity and how callously they are killed. Now comes Blackfish, which wants to, and succeeds, in doing the same thing for Orcas. It focuses on one Orca in particular – Tilikum – who is now responsible for the death of three people – two trainers and an idiot who snuck into SeaWorld and thought it would be fun to swim with an Orca. Watching the film, it is impossible to feel anything but sympathy for Tilikum – who has had such a hard life that goes against his own animal instincts that you cannot really blame him for what he does. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel sympathy for the people who died because of Tilikum – I do, even if I just called that one guy an idiot (and I’ll stand by that). But when you take an animal out of his natural habitat, lock him in a small pool with other whales who don’t like him, force him to perform on a daily basis for years on end, it’s no wonder that he snapped.
Blackfish essentially tells Tilikum’s story through the perspective of the people who trained him, and whales like him, in parks such as SeaWorld. It starts with a harrowing recollection of how these whale were initially captured – a story that brings one of the fishermen to tears when he recalls just how cruel it turned out to be. Now, most animals at places like SeaWorld are now one that are born and bred in captivity – but Tilikum was not. He was ripped away from his family and friends – and if you think that’s no big deal, just wait until you hear the Orca experts describe just how emotionally evolved Orcas are, and how interconnected their family units are.
Tilikum is captured, and sent to a low rent amusement park in Victoria B.C. – where he is mistreated by a trainer using “negative” reinforcement, and locked away each night in a small tank with two female whales, who don’t like him very much, and constantly “rake” him – essentially running their teeth along his body, leaving wounds and permanent scars. In the wild, Tilikum could get away, but in captivity, he is trapped, and has no choice but to suffer the abuse. One day, a trainer slips, and their foot falls into the water – and Tilikum drags her under, and kills her. Although reports vary as to which of the three whales actually killed the trainer – eyewitnesses say it was Tilikum – and they could tell because he is the one with the floppy dorsal fin. After that, the park closes down and Tilikum is sold to SeaWorld – who keeps right on training him and making him perform every day. And while SeaWorld is undeniably better than the low-rent park that had him Tilikum the first time, it’s also hard to deny that “better” in this context is a relative term.
Blackfish, like The Cove, does not really try to be a fair and balanced documentary. It requested on multiple occasions, according to the documentary, to get someone from SeaWorld to speak to them on camera – and of course they refused. For the most part than Blackfish is certainly an advocacy documentary – one that argues that confining Orcas in captivity is devastating to them, and makes them act out in ways they normally do not do. After all, there has never been a fatal Orca attack on a human recorded in the wild, but Tilikum now has three fatalities on his record himself. I would have liked to have seen the “other side” of the issue as it were – but judging from the various statements from SeaWorld in response to the documentary – which are mainly corporate speak, and “refutes” points that the documentary doesn’t even make at times – I doubt they would have shed too much light on the subject. After all, SeaWorld is a multi-million dollar corporation, with many theme parks across America. They have a vested financial interest in keeping Orcas in captivity – and keeping them working with trainers. It makes for a better show.
As it stands, the movie is mainly made up of former SeaWorld trainers – all but one of whom has had a change of heart over the years. They question the training (or lack thereof) that they received before getting into the water with the whales, and the ones who worked directly with Tilikum say they were never given his complete history. The lone trainer who doesn’t seem to agree that Orcas should not be held in captivity argues that Tilikum is an isolated case – and should be treated as such – rather than a condemnation on the entire industry. Yet the movie does document other – fatal and non-fatal – incidents involving Orcas. While it is true (apparently) that there an Orca has never attacked and killed a human in their natural habitat – just in captivity – Orcas kill just about everything else. They kill other whales, sharks, dolphins, fish and as shown in some home footage in the documentary, sea lions. Orcas are predators – and when held in captivity with none of their usual prey to eat, doesn’t it make sense that once in a while, they are going to attack humans? You cannot blame an animal for being an animal.
I feel nothing but sympathy for the people whose death Tilikum caused – especially Dawn Brancheau, because of the three victims, it is her the movie focuses on, and her story is told by people who knew her. She was known as one of SeaWorld’s best and most responsible trainers. Like the other trainers in the movie, she got involved because she loved animals – they all care deeply for the Orcas that they worked with. Hers, and the other two deaths, are tragedies. But they are a tragedy that could have been avoided – and I don’t think we can realistically say that Tilikum is responsible for them – he’s just as much of a victim as they are. That was the overwhelming feeling I got from watching Blackfish – that Tilikum deserved a better life than the one he has had.