OK, so the whale is a mammal, but that doesn’t change the fact that Blackfish, a documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is one of the best documentaries — scratch that — one of the best films, of 2013, and really should have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Academy Awards. Last year I was deeply angered after watching The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the US military; this year I was mesmerized and traumatized by Blackfish, a cautionary tale on the dangers of keeping killer whales in captivity for the sake of entertainment.
The film focuses on the killer whale Tilikum, an orca that has been in captivity for 30 years and is still held in SeaWorld Orlando, where he performs daily. Even though this is a documentary, it’s still best to go into it knowing as little as possible, so I won’t go into the orca’s history as it would spoil some of the revelations in this film, which unfold masterfully thanks to a well-written script. The documentary is powered by a series of interviews with former SeaWorld trainers and people who worked at the now-defunct Canadian Sealand, where Tilikum once resided, as well as testimonials from whale experts, catchers and the like. There is also a lot of excellent footage of the whales, including their capture, training and performance videos, making this feel like a very complete documentary with no major missing pieces.
The central argument running through Blackfish is that whales are fiercely intelligent, highly evolved and emotional creatures that should not be held in captivity, and if you do, you are doing it at your own peril. The film paints orcas as animals with humanistic emotions, and argues — in a skillful and non-manipulative way — that holding them against their will in dark, tiny tanks for most of their lives (sometimes under substandard care), starving them to train them to perform tricks, separating their offspring from them, and allowing them to be subjected to abuse from other whales, is deeply inhumane and immoral. It is no wonder why some experts say that it makes the whales psychotic and turns them into ticking time bombs, and it’s hard to blame them when they eventually lash out out of frustration.
It is a film that is difficult to watch at times for so many reasons. It breaks your heart watching the whales howl in agony when they are separated from their family, when they are being “treated” by staff, or when you see the bullied calves battered and bloodied by their larger peers. It’s also agonizing watching the brutal attacks of the whales on their trainers, knowing that there is little anyone can do to save them from the jaws of these 5,000kg+ beasts. It can get really emotional watching the interviews of the trainers who worked with the whales, not to mention the loved ones of those trainers who lost their lives because of their jobs. And of course, it can be infuriating listening to the SeaWorld reps spinning their PR stories. I found myself going through a roller coaster ride of emotions during this film and was almost moved to tears several times.
The subject of the film is interesting enough, but Cowperthwaite should also be commended for her filmmaking, which can often be understated for documentaries. Blackfish is an engrossing work that ticks all the right boxes — it serves an important purpose by bringing someone to our attention that we might not have otherwise been aware of, it tells a story in an interesting and captivating way, it’s entertaining, and it is capable of stirring up your emotions.
I remember going to SeaWord (I think it was in Hong Kong) as a kid and being wowed by the experience, and drinking the SeaWorld kool aid which suggests to us that the whales love what they do and have wonderful relationships with their trainers. Blackfish argues that this could not be further from the truth.
Having said all that, I should point out that Blackfish does have its fair share of critics, who argue that the film distorts the facts and completely ignores the positive work that SeaWorld does (including rescuing animals before freeing them and donating millions to conservation and research). One interviewee said he believes his interviews were seldom used for the film because what he said, which is largely in support of SeaWord, did not fit in with the filmmakers’ agenda. And let’s be honest, Cowperthwaite clearly did have an agenda — but then again, so do all documentary films — and it’s hard to deny that she did a great job in promoting it. However, it should also be noted that not all the claims are against SeaWord (it’s more a general critique of the industry and past practices), and most importantly, SeaWorld repeatedly turned down opportunities to be interviewed for the film, and therefore opportunities to state their side of the story.
Regardless of what you think about holding whales in captivity for the sake of entertaining people at theme parks, one thing is for sure if you watch Blackfish: you will never look at theme parks such as SeaWorld in the same light again. I urge everyone to watch this brilliant documentary, read up about both sides of the story, and decide for yourself.
4.5 stars out of 5