Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. (2013, PG-13, 83 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 2, 2013
Pair this shocking documentary about the plight of captive killer whales at SeaWorld and similar faux-oceanic environs with the forthcoming doc The Act of Killing (add 2009’s The Cove if you’re feeling especially inhuman) and you might as well just put a bullet in the head of the whole of mankind. Stick a harpoon in us, we’re done for.
Cowperthwaite’s depressingly unsurprising doc focuses on the ongoing plight of Tilikum, an orca captured as an adolescent off the coast of Iceland and, since then, implicated in a series of aggressive encounters with marine-park employees, which culminated in the death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau. Blackfish’s damning core assertion, heavily bolstered by a roster of former SeaWorld trainers, animal experts, and even one of the fishermen who helped capture infant orcas back in the Seventies, is that these gorgeous, glossy, black-and-white wonders may be second only to humans in terms of brain capacity, self-awareness, language, and familial ties. (And possibly more human than human in the latter case.) Penning them inside man-made water-worlds with an eye toward entertainment and free enterprise is tantamount to animal cruelty of the highest order. Watching these scarred and possibly psychotic mammals do flips and tricks for the rubes puts you in mind of Charlton Heston’s plight in – I’m serious – Planet of the Apes, but in this case, the damn dirty bipeds are the owners of SeaWorld and its ilk. Notably, that corporate entity has objected strenuously to its tawdry depiction in this film, even going so far as to issue a point-by-point rebuttal to the charges Cowperthwaite makes. In turn, the producers of Blackfish have offered their own rebuttal to the rebuttal. And so it goes.
SeaWorld did itself no favors by refusing to cooperate during the making of the documentary and refusing requests for interviews with the filmmakers, but it’s horrific enough to learn that none of the former employees interviewed here were aware of Tilikum’s potential for violence or that this particular orca had been involved in potentially lethal acts prior to the death of Brancheau in 2010. SeaWorld’s official response to the incident put the blame squarely on the trainer, or, more accurately, her ponytail. Blackfish systematically, and with great compassion toward all the mammals involved, rips that verdict to shreds, and in the process makes you long for the day when SeaWorld’s bottom line is no longer the cause for the functional imprisonment of these awe-inspiring creatures.
Former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove, featured in the film, will participate in a Q&A via Skype following the 7:30pm screenings on Friday and Saturday at the Violet Crown Cinema. For more on the film, see “Blood in the Water,” August 2. 2010 Oscar-winner The Cove also returns to the Violet Crown for a one-week companion engagement.