A documentary that combines animal rights activism with anti corporate sentiment, Blackfish is certainly one of the more liberal minded films of the summer of 2013. The rather notorious killer whale known as Tilikum is the main subject of this doc, but the purported atrocities of Sea World come under an even bigger microscope. After all, it’s hard to blame an animal for acting like an animal, but a company that sets its employees up to potentially be in harm’s way? That’s a different story entirely. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite seeks to shine a light on the practices at the park that aren’t particularly safe or friendly to either the whales or their trainers. By seeking to take the fun out of the attraction and show you the true horror of orcas in captivity and the harm that can come of it, the doc is certainly not aiming to be a feel good time at the movies, but with any important issue of this ilk, entertainment isn’t exactly high on the list of things this flick is setting out to provide you with. Anger and information is more on its mind. Though a bit one sided, this is still a very solid movie and one of the better documentaries of 2013 so far.
Almost everyone has seen an orca or “killer whale” perform at a show, be it at Sea World or elsewhere. Doing tricks and flying through the air with their trainers, it can appear to be a beautiful and majestic thing. There’s a lot more to it than that, and this doc aims to go behind the curtain. As much as these giants are thought of as friendly and lovable, they’re also infamous for their capacity to kill, and kill viciously. The story of Tilikum the whale is our entranceway into this, since this orca has taken the lives of several people (mainly trainers) while being kept in captivity. The documentarian is seeking to show you how a combination of animal nature, the cruel treatment that is captivity, as well as the disillusionment of whale trainers has led us to this point. The hope here is to challenge us to reconsider our relationship with nature/orcas and to ultimately reveal how little we as humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals over the years as well as to shine a light on what Sea World is up to. For the most part, the film is successful in these endeavors, especially when we’re focused on Tilikum.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, along with her co-writer Eli B. Despres opts for a simple structure to her documentary. We get a lot of purportedly never before seen footage to go along with standard talking head interviews, and while it’s hardly revolutionary, it’s mostly effective. Cowperthwaite and Despres get a little over-zealous in going after Sea World at times, but if their facts are to be believed, those parks are up to no good and that corporation isn’t exactly a kind and gentle one. They’re really attacking the company here, and while I certainly don’t doubt their claims, it does make it seem a little bit too one sided at certain instances, which blunts a bit of their effectiveness. The clips of orca attacks are stunning in how unexpected they seem, but also at how natural they are too. These are “killer whales”, after all. Cowperthwaite knows this and uses it to full effect. The film is only 80 minutes long and never overstays its welcome, though I’d argue that a slightly tighter focus would have overall benefitted the project. That’s a small complaint though, as I don’t mean to take the movie down a peg, as it’s quality stuff for sure.
Overall, Blackfish is an illuminating and thought provoking documentary about just what you’re paying to support when you go to Sea World. The doc wants to get you angry, something I’m sure it will achieve with the majority of its audience members. This is probably too special of an interest to seriously compete for an Academy Award nomination, but I certainly don’t think it’s not on the level of fellow competitors for Best Documentary Feature. Regardless of that, this is a solid doc that deserves to be seen…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!