I have a confession to make – I love a good documentary. The past couple of years I’ve seen some fantastic documentaries – Senna, Marley, Restrepo, Food Inc. and Hoop Dreams to name a few.
So what makes a good documentary? Well, they should be challenging and informative, providing an alternative opinion and highlighting issues that don’t get the attention. The best documentaries are the ones that can change your way of thinking. In the case of Blackfish it is all of the above. You will never hear me say this…
“I want to go to SeaWorld”.
As a young kid, I remembered how attractive SeaWorld was. I remembered the adverts that made it glamorous and magical. I watched the Free Willy films and even that terrible cartoon, remembered the real life whale that starred in those films and the merchandises. So when it came to watching Blackfish, it was a revealing eye-opener.
The strength of Blackfish is it doesn’t try to blame you for your ignorance. It wants you to connect and engage with the story, like all good documentaries do. What it reveals are the emotional testimonies from former SeaWorld employees and how institutions go about their business for the sake of our entertainment. In that respect, Blackfish is one of the most shocking and disturbing documentaries I’ve watched when it came out last year.
The documentary raises important questions about how animals are kept in captivity and in this particular case, the subject revolves around orca whales. It chronicles the story of Tilikum, an orca whale that killed three people, which included a veteran SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau back in 2010. It delves into Tilikum’s past, capturing how whales were caught, separated from their families and transported to water parks where they live in small, cramped conditions and then trained to perform tricks for the visiting audiences.
The documentary is very psychological. It tries to dispel myths or urban legends surrounding orca whales, hence the feeling of being mentally betrayed by the thoughts or experiences you preconceived. For example, Blackfish investigates why a whales’ fin is bent. The truth is it’s not supposed to be! Does a whale live longer when kept in captivity rather than in the wild? It’s what they want you to think and yet Blackfish dismisses that with a simple answer – no. The employees were feeding us lies without any kind of actual knowledge or research. It was the “let me say anything to appease the visiting customer” attitude and we naturally fell for it because they were supposed to be the experts. It’s like watching a classic Disney movie and then suddenly realising the truth that a fox and a hound could never be friends in real life.
Blackfish also balances out the arguments on how intelligent orca whales are and how they communicate with one another in their natural habitat. It allows the audience to further sympathise with their ordeal and learn something that we may have been unaware of.
The whales like Tilikum (who were use to the freedom of the ocean) are basically trapped in their water prison for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Spending a long time in those conditions was bound to have a traumatising effect on the creatures and in the case of Tilikum, when he “acted out” it often resulted in near death experiences, or for the unlucky one – a fatality. The documentary doesn’t shy away from those issues, often ‘hammering in’ the arguments with footage that is truly alarming. It’s one thing to see a five tonne plus whale pull a trainer underwater to try and drown him, but the injuries that Dawn suffered which effectively killed her brought me to tears.
By creating the conditions, these whales were essentially a ticking time bomb waiting to happen.
“Those are not your whales. Ya know, you love them, and you think, I’m the one that touches them, feeds them, keeps them alive, gives them the care that they need. They’re NOT your whales. They own them!” – John Hargrove
The documentary is also incredibly sympathetic to the former trainers at SeaWorld. We see videos when they were young and impressionable, doing something that they loved and buying into the corporate philosophy of their employers. Despite the obvious risk (a human being going into a tank with a whale), to them it was the best job in the world until they started to open their eyes. The sad reality is that it took a death of a friend and colleague for them to see this. The aftermath of Dawn’s death is disturbing as the blame was laid at her doorstep as a “trainer error” rather than revealing the prior knowledge that Tilikum had previous history with violent acts of behaviour. It’s hard for dead people to defend themselves you know and history seemed to be repeating itself with the lessons tragically ignored.
However, Blackfish is incredibly one sided, with no one from the other side (aka SeaWorld) voicing their opinion on their practices and the allegations raised in this documentary. Nevertheless, what is there to defend when the allegations and their conduct is so damning? All the former employees expressed nothing but regret, sadness, disbelief and disillusionment. For some it was the most painful experience in their life.
The fact the film was snubbed from this year’s Oscar nominations is extraordinary and unbelievable. Whether the Academy didn’t want to associate themselves with “political” issues, the fact that so many people (which included music acts such as Willie Nelson, The Barenaked Ladies and Heart) had an emotional reaction shows the power and strength of the film. I think people should be angry and upset by what Blackfish presented. It’s an uncomfortable watch because of the immorality of the whole situation. It’s the failure to recognise the mistakes by deflecting the blame onto others and the knowledge that animals can’t be controlled, not even for a profit.
Blackfish is a thought-provoking and emotional documentary that is carefully put together by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. She doesn’t try to place blame onto the whales or the trainers but highlights the negligent, deceitful and naïve practices that organisations associate themselves with and how often it can lead to trouble.
After seeing this documentary, it would probably make you think twice about SeaWorld.