Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 film, Blackfish, does exactly what a great documentary should do. The movie is as heart-wrenching as the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove, but at its core, Blackfish is even more horrifying. Nearly ten million people inadvertently participate in the film’s tragic story every year by visiting SeaWorld parks across the U.S.
Blackfish documents the story of SeaWorld Orlando’s Tilikum, a 32-year-old bull orca, whose involvement in the deaths of three people since 1991 has marked the whale with an infamous reputation. However, as the film will attest, blame for the incidents hardly falls on Tilikum.
Cowperthwaite’s film does a remarkable job of showing the mental anguish “killer whales” face in captivity, utilizing a mixture of home footage and heartfelt interviews. Perhaps the strongest instance is the behind-the-scenes video of Tilikum, floating listlessly in his tank after SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death.
Blackfish is a documentary first, but elements like this make the film a disturbingly powerful psychological thriller. The psychosis the whales undergo over years of confinement is traumatic, and the tragic results of the orcas’ violent behavior must be attributed to their forced imprisonment at the hands of SeaWorld management.
According to testimonials, park management kept trainers in the dark about the violent histories of these whales, and disregarded the whales’ mother-offspring relationship on a number of occasions, knowingly causing the animals distress by separating the families.
One trainer tells a story of female orca, Katina, continually crying out for her daughter, Kalina, and even developing new, long-distance vocalizations to help locate her child. The separation between mothers and sons is even more traumatic given that in the wild, adult males are extremely dependent on their mothers and constantly stay by their side.
Cowperthwaite collected an astounding group of former trainers, executives, and researchers to recount their experiences with Tilikum and the other orcas. Feelings of grief and embarrassment are shared amongst the majority of the interviewed trainers, but one diver’s haunting recollection really stands out. John Crowe, a member of a diving team tasked with capturing infant orcas back in the late 1970s, tearfully remembers taking baby whales from their families, likening it to, “kidnapping a little kid from their mother.”
Crowe remembers the babies’ family watching as the crew cornered and stole the whales’ young, lamenting how he continued to work instead of freeing the infant whales. His admission is incredibly cathartic, as he refers to the incident as, “the worst thing that I’ve ever done.”
Many of the employees once associated with SeaWorld know the whales don’t belong in captivity, and recognize that the blame during instances of violence doesn’t fall on the whales or the deceased trainers. The animals are simply not meant for the conditions they’re forced to live under—it’s no wonder the animals grow agitated.
The film states, in captivity there has been over 70 accidents involving “killer whales” and their trainers. However, in the wild there has virtually been no documentation of “killer whale” aggression toward humans.
Additionally, there is no doubt trainers and victims like Keltie Byrne and Brancheau loved these animals. Blackfish shows the generally good intentions the trainers have, but it also documents their realization of how powerless they actually are. Sadly, in the end, both the orcas and the trainers are victims to the almighty dollar.
These animals aren’t attractions, and this film serves as a warning to the future of orcas in captivity as well as the fate of their trainers. If something doesn’t change soon, these whales will only continue to suffer and further acts of violence are inevitable.
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, Blackfish is exceptionally eye-opening, and packed with an assortment of information for a 83-minute movie. The film debuted at Sundance back in January, but will be released in select theaters on July 19.
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The film is undoubtedly a strong Oscar contender being the first big name documentary of the season, and rightfully so. Viewer beware—tears will shed, and hate will rage. This film is not just for activists, but for everyone.
— Anthony Armentano, exclusive to Global Animal
Blackfish airs on CNN tonight, October 24, at 9pm.
We give Blackfish five paws!
Watch the Blackfish trailer below.