F*** SeaWorld: anyone who does not come to this conclusion by the time the credits roll on Blackfish, can consider themselves part of the problem. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary focuses on the controversy surrounding the captivity of killer whales at the world famous theme park. In particular, Tilikum, a 12,000 pound male who is currently held in Orlando, Florida, and who has so far killed three people.
It came as no great surprise to me that animals kept in confined spaces, away from their natural habitat for extended periods of time or for the duration of their lives can become violent and frustrated. I had even heard some of the controversies surrounding SeaWorld and their treatment or rather mistreatment of these animals. Call me naïve but what surprised me most was the sheer amount of cover-ups in place here.
Blackfish makes it explicitly clear that the trainers, although disgustingly misguided, love these animals and take a great pride in their development and the friendships they build. These trainers, the main focus of the film and consisting of mainly ex-SeaWorld workers, are regretful of their own actions to an extent and adamantly resentful of SeaWorld itself. A few interviews end emotionally and these are not even necessarily the ones surrounding recollections of human deaths.
The film sticks to a fairly strict and linear timeline of events from the earliest capture of killer whales to the most recent death of 2010. Along the way, Cowperthwaite uses a variety of stock news footage, interviews and small amounts of CGI to push the audience into connecting with these characters, be they human or whales. You cannot help but feel for the animals at every moment of the film and there is a clear, unapologetic message here. I would be amazed if Cowperthwaite herself did not admit to having an agenda when cutting this film together; some emotive audio played over a stirring image, for example, with no true connection but instead creatively blended together to click with certain emotions in the viewer. However, the director does this, in my opinion, in an effort to forcefully highlight an issue which seems to repeatedly fly below the radar, bar the occasional tragedy.
Feeding into the naivety of the general public, SeaWorld continues to object to the film calling it “propaganda” with “questionable filmmaking techniques” on their website. Their legal fights over the years are a large part of the film’s plot and there are some obvious connotations to take from these scenes such as the power of money. Whilst the movie does arguably come close to propaganda in certain areas, had I gone into Blackfish knowing all of SeaWorld’s many defences for their behaviour, I would have been just as disgusted by it; if not, more so from their consistent lack of moral integrity. In an effort to bridge the gap, I would suggest reading their criticisms of the film as things you can watch out for yourself before making your mind up as to the position of SeaWorld. If nothing else, it makes for an interesting argument for the so-called “trueness” of documentary filmmaking.
Enjoying Blackfish is not something I imagine many people doing but it is an important story nonetheless. It is a controversial film about a controversial subject and everybody should watch it.
RATING: SEE IT – [Rating system: See it / See it cheap / Skip it]