A damning indictment of corporate greed in the context of the aquatic entertainment industry, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish is a documentary that most definitely beats its drum, though to a rhythm I suspect most viewers are already in synch with. Nobody* likes to see animals exploited and films that expose such behaviour (from faceless corporations no less!) are always going to elicit empathetic cries of “Nooooo!” from the incensed masses (myself included). Then add in the majestic/novelty/cute factor of Orcas and you know a film like this can’t fail to please – unless it is doing something terribly wrong, which Blackfish is not.
The narrative thread around which the issues are presented is the tragic story of the quite possibly borderline psychotic Orca Tilikum. Taken from its pod as a pup then kept in tiny unnatural enclosures with hostile co-occupants and traded between parks this poor creature has been the cause of three seemingly intentional deaths over his time in captivity. Cowperthwaite and co. go to great lengths to show us how Orca life differs in the wild from captivity–probably the best sequences of the film by far–and presents compelling evidence that the two latter deaths need not have occurred if decisions regarding Tilikum weren’t solely based on profit margins. The bulk of the footage is made up of ex-Seaworld trainer talking heads elucidating the situation at Seaworld as they remember it–illustrated via archival recordings–and explaining how their perspective has changed in subsequent years. All are sincere and have the Orcas/dolphins/etc best interests at heart even if they now realise that the ecosystem they fed into is most definitely NOT what is best for these creatures. We are shown how the ‘highly skilled trainers’ of Seaworld and the like start off, for the most part, with no particular background, training, or qualifications related to marine mammals. This is all on the job, corporation derived practice and philosophy; dubious at best. In ways watching this reminded me of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man about the sincerely deluded Timothy Treadwell working to ‘help the bears’. It is unsurprising given all this that attacks happen and fatalities occur.
My big issue with this film, and films like it–and hence the middling rating–is that all the work is being done by the subject alone. The filmmaking is pedestrian at best. Archival footage of differing quality spliced into talking head interviews work ok but I really could be just as happy seeing this on a decent sized TV screen. There really isn’t a lot that’s ‘cinematic’ about the production of Blackfish; except, perhaps, the Orcas themselves.
*Nb. I’m disregarding sick, sadistic individuals in this assessment.
Rating: M Content may disturb.