Release: Saturday, January 19, 2013 (limited)
Somehow, that scene towards the end of Free Willy, where the captive orca soars through the air over Jesse and over the rocky causeway in a single symbolic act of escaping to freedom — yeah, that doesn’t seem so moving anymore having sat through a documentary about the inhumane treatment of dozens more trapped in captivity. Free Willy did have Michael Jackson in its soundtrack, though. That movie definitely had that going for it. . .
However, I’m not here to make comparisons between this film and that one. Such is not the intention of Blackfish, either, a rather unsettling documentary on the subject of orcas (a.k.a. “killer whales”) and how they are treated and how they behave in unnatural, oppressive environments — places that we, the general public, have come to call “theme parks.” In particular, one aquatically-oriented park, SeaWorld, is under investigation here as former trainers come out of the woodwork to explain (more like confess) their time with the company. They detail several disturbing company policies and procedures, often becoming emotional during the interviews; they go on the record with details surrounding the death of one of SeaWorld’s most experienced orca trainers -–Dawn Brancheau — and the surprising lack of an impact that her passing made upon the money-hungry powerhouse.
Interestingly enough, aside from the multitude of trainers not a single SeaWorld employee chose to be interviewed for the film. Are they to blame, though?
This documentary is quite damning: time and again it showcases the company glossing over completely inescapable facts. We see archived footage of real trainers falling victim to attacks from the very orcas they are training. The consistency with which corporate execs attempt to paper over each incident of an orca’s abnormal aggression being taken out on their employees (read: trainers) is simply stunning. Most of the time, as the documentary adequately reveals, these incidents (one of which did indeed result in a death) are explained away as trainer error, and that no incident has ever happened due to the whale being an aggressive mammal. Especially because they’re closely-monitored when cooped up in a concrete pool. Yeah, right.
Even more fascinatingly, Blackfish demonstrates the behavioral changes many (if not all) orcas presented in this story display as they get plucked out of the open oceans and dropped into what are essentially fish tanks in which they will perform stunts and tricks for the rest of their lives. Think of it like a freshman mixer, except everyone there is pretty damn hostile, and whose egos are much too big to share a room with others.
Never before did I, personally, view these exhibitions as much more than kitschy, relatively harmless avenues to seek family entertainment, but the film unveils a much more grisly, troubling reality lurking under the surface. I won’t venture to say that it reveals the true nature of humankind as such, but it certainly reveals the true nature of the business mentality. It’s alarming at best, and this is where the film really becomes brilliant.
One of the ways in which it’s so effective and engaging is the psychology behind the documenting of facts itself. There’s a certain level of trepidation you are likely to experience throughout: and that is, whether you should feel guilty about what humans have done (and continue to do) with these majestic mammals, or if you should feel terrible for those trainers who risked (and sometimes sacrificed) their lives to working with them in these kinds of environments. The complex truth behind it all is that you probably should feel both.
We get swept up in the story of Tilikum, SeaWorld’s largest orca whale — at 12, 000 pounds, he’s described as twice as large as the next largest mammal SeaWorld currently has to offer in their Orlando park, and his story is the most tragic note struck upon in the film. This particular orca has killed three trainers, two of which were SeaWorld employees, and the third an employee of Sealand of the Pacific (consider it to be a ghetto version of SeaWorld, with even more deplorable conditions for the whales) since being separated from his mother and natural habitat and thrust into the corporate trading game of what are now deemed valuable investments for a variety of parks to consider obtaining. These beasts may be exhilarating to see in real life, up-close. . . and behind railings — but the real question is, at what cost are those ticket purchases to go see Shamu. . . or Tilikum, truly worth? Human lives? The psychological torment of our fellow mammals? Shouldn’t it be more captivating (for the lack of a better word. . .) to see them roaming in their natural habitat, spontaneously existing?
This remarkable film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, addresses all of these concerns, plus a myriad of others. It’s well worth everyone’s time to see Blackfish, troubling as it may be.
Recommendation: Speaking from a point of view from someone who’s not an animal rights activist (though I am in no way against them), this film you must absolutely see. Rent, download (I’ll even turn a blind eye to illegal downloads if that’s the way you’re going to be able to access this) — you have to get your hands on this film. It is not only well-crafted, but the subject matter is potent, both emotionally and spiritually. You’ll fall in love with a few non-human characters you may not have known much about otherwise. That’s about the bare minimum of the experience you’re going to get when sitting down to watch this one.
Running Time: 80 mins.