During our lifetimes many of us will visit a marine park and marvel in awe at the common main attraction – the seemingly harmonious interaction between 8,000-pound plus orcas or “killer whales” and their human trainers. Blackfish, directed brilliantly by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is a captivating and harrowing documentary investigation into the fascinating nature of the orca – their supreme intelligence and development of different languages, their open water gracefulness and clinical hunting abilities - and the cruel mistreatment of those kept in captivity and trained for human amusement. Also examined are the indecencies of the marine park industry and the decades of incidents, manipulated to hide the truth and keep the business afloat. We see the devastating consequences of human exploitation and greed, with nature the executor of revenge. Concisely structured, thoroughly researched and powerfully argued, Blackfish plays out like a thriller, with an especially troubled soul at the core. We broadly track different branches of the industry – orca hunting and transportation, corporate emphasis on profits over the wellbeing of the animals and safety of the trainers, and the enthusiasm-come-disillusionment of park employees - through the decade-spanning life Sea World Orlando’s largest male, Tilicum. Eventually deemed responsible for the tragic death of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, Tilicum’s life has been a rough one.
As one expert claims, there is no knowledge of a wild orca ever attacking a human, and yet in captivity they have been involved in several deaths. In such an unnatural and unhealthy environment it is easy to see where Tilicum, adored by the trainers who had built a relationship with him and financially essential to Sea World for breeding purposes, began to develop his psychological trauma. The ‘Blackfish’ of the title has been responsible for the deaths of three people over the course of twenty years as an attraction. In his early years Tilicum was subjected to suspect training techniques, and was bullied and badly injured by aggravated female companions. A telling fact, and evidence of the improper conduct that has only been cultivated since, Sea World failed to make proper inquiry into Tilicum’s history and any knowledge they had about his concerning behaviour was subsequently not passed on to their trainers.
Tracing Tilicum’s story – from his capture off Iceland in 1983, through his living hell at a now-defunct Toronto park, to the present day where he continues to perform at Sea World – the series of incidents seem not only speculatively inevitable, but also only natural. We are privileged to hear remarkably emotional and honest accounts from a number of interviewed ex-trainers who recount their affection for Tilicum (and others) and their perspective on the incidents they experienced. They express concern about the welfare of the orcas and show evident remorse and embarrassment at having played a role in their exploitation. One of the most powerful accounts is from a whaler who relays a horrifying story that he has since been unable to shake.
Just as shocking as these first-hand accounts is the extensive amount of raw video footage of trainers finding themselves unexpectedly in imminent danger. Having been educated throughout the documentary abut the environment orcas require to thrive in this footage doesn’t suggest that the orcas are savage, but builds a very convincing argument to suggest that they have been psychologically damaged living in these conditions. It simply should not continue.
Another conveyance of the strength of their emotions come courtesy of the experiences of two different trainers, who describe a female’s reaction – immediate devastation and desperate attempts to communicate, and a grief period – following the removal of a youngster from her care. Add in Sea World’s claim to offer informative stimulus of their marine life and yet blatantly twist the facts as part of their elaborate damage control – which extends to the blaming the trainers in the wake of incident - and there is barely a second of this film that isn’t deeply affecting.
The footage that Cowperthwaite doesn’t have of incidents is made up by accounts from multiple eyewitnesses, who are so willing to divulge anything they can, that we feel like we have actually witnessed it ourselves. Court transcripts are used to highlight the lies under oath of Sea World directors. These are accompanied by an effective graphic to stand in for the absence of at least recorded testimony. Of course Sea World repeatedly denied to be interviewed for the film.
At the end of the film one of the interviewees forlornly reflects on what has been learned over the decades and sullenly declares: “nothing”. This deeply upsetting documentary certainly forces you to question whether to visit these attractions in the future.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
I can recommend adding Blackfish to your Sydney Film Festival lineup (it is screening on June 7 & 8), or at least consider seeing it when has a cinema run later in the year.
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.