Really great documentaries are like zeitgeist napalm; and Blackfish carries the torch. Tilikum is the primary breeding male whale in the Sea World stable is the central protagonist of Blackfish. His involvement in several attacks on trainers is merely the gateway to a litany of incidents of captive Orca attacks and illuminates the 'bottom-line' corporate propaganda of keeping Orca captive. Blackfish charts how marketing machinations and branding has sanctioned the slavery of such a majestic and emotionally sophisticated being.
This is a film that's going to infuriate you as well as making you feel all kinds of awful. Don't let that deter you though, as Drew 'Bundini' Brown (Muhammad Ali's famous corner man) used to say; ' the truth tastes good, when you've had a belly full of lies.' The most disorientating aspect unearthed by the team behind Blackfish and a whole parade of former trainers is that Sea World's branding and outward sophistication was essentially a conservation 'key word' hall of smoke and mirrors and the reality of the matter was a clumsy mess.
The more you absorb from Blackfish, the more you'll find your mouth agape with disgust. While you're walking through Sea World the lies that you'll be spun are that they live for 35 years; that there's no distinction between one kind of Orca to the next; that the collapsed fins of the male Orcas is comparable to that in the wild (100% of captive orcas have collapsed dorsal fins while less than 1% of wild orcas do); and finally that this could not be a being with comparable mental cognisance to feel. The Orca research that's exponentially grown since the 70s has revealed some incredible facts; their life span is equal to or greater than humans, they have a sophisticated matriarchal society with bullet proof familial bonds that last for their entire lives, their brains are larger and more developed than humans in the areas responsible for emotion and finally they have unique vocalisations that differ vastly between different groups and regions that they're found across the globe; which essentially means that they have language.
Documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite has a conventional style, utilising archival footage and 'talking head' interviews (without directly intervening or interrogating the interviewees). The most striking contrast though is seeing the Orca in their natural habitat, streaming in familial pods being contrasted by the oppressive pale blue of their minuscule enclosures. The discourse of Blackfish's contributors and writers though doesn't need any trickery for you to feel the impact. Sea World, like the Nazis before them, benefitted from being in a position of authority and prestige. Watching the disillusioned trainers talk, they look like participants in scientist Stanley Miligram's now infamous electric shock therapies. Miligram demonstrated that participants would continue to be subservient to figures in power despite knowing that they were responsible for causing pain. Each of them explains their divergent backgrounds and lack of expertise and training; they're wide-eyed and can't help but to nervously giggle as they recount situation after situation where they repeatedly dodged the bullet of being in close proximity to a wild animal (Tilikum) that had been tortured to perform.
Despite the frustration, Blackfish is a documentary that leaves the power in the audience's hands. If Blackfish doesn't leave a mark, then at best you don't have a heart.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Written by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres and
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.