Cert: 12 (TBC)
Running time: 84 mins
The lowdown: A shocking expose of greed, barbarity and callousness in the multi-billion marine life theme park industry, Blackfish is candidate for 2013’s best documentary. Following the blood trail left by the 2010 killing of a trainer by the largest orca in captivity, Cowperthwaite’s movie is an unforgettable experience and, with shocking caught on camera footage, a disturbing insight into the world behind Shamu.
The full verdict: With the investigative zeal of Errol Morris, Gabriela Cowperthwaite knows when something smells fishy.
And Sea World’s explanation that the tragic 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau was “trainer error” became suspect when eyewitnesses at the public show claimed Tilikum, the park’s star killer whale, attacked her.
Diving deeper into the story, Cowperthwaite uncovers decades of whale abuse and mistreatment at the hands of hunters and parks, notably SeaWorld, who refused to be interviewed for the movie.
Yet, Blackfish is no tub-thumping polemic. Avoiding sensationalism it unearths the events in Tilikum’s life with a journalistic rigour, expanding the story wider to reveal the dangers of keeping whales in captivity.
Despite being involved in the deaths of three people, Tilikum is no freak anomaly. Numerous attacks are shown in a documentary that has a wealth of footage both astonishing and horrifying.
One clearly is due to “trainer error” and the trainer was lucky to escape with just a broken arm. But former employees interviewed claim SeaWorld’s hiring policy is based more on personality and fitness rather than marine life expertise.
A remarkable sequence depicts another trainer being repeatedly taken to the bottom of the tank by a whale for extended periods, escaping with his life due to experience underwater swimming and his attempts to sooth the whale rather than panic.
But, resisting the urge to demonise, Blackfish depicts the trainers as well-intentioned (brave) animal lovers and the whales as dangerous victims of abuse.
Tilikum was captured in the Icelandic sea in 1983 and housed in Sealand, a low-rent Canadian park. Boxed into a tiny tank for fourteen hours a day, he endured attacks from the park’s two female whales.
At SeaWorld, he suffered further attacks, orcas being a matriarchal speices, and was subsequently isolated. But, he was prized due to his size and the fact he can breed, cutting down costs of sourcing the mammals in the wild.
Elsewhere, distressing footage of female whales being separated from their young, both in the wild and captivity, suggests how one trauma after another can lead to deadly moments of aggression.
SeaWorld’s refusal to be interviewed is a massive own goal, offering no counterpoint to the testimony of their former employees turned whistleblowers. Equally damaging are the inaccuracies the park’s tour guides spout, set against interviews with whale experts.
A fitting companion piece to The Cove, Blackfish is not a comfortable experience but it is a riveting example of great documentary filmmaking’s power.
And a disquieting post script is that Tilikum still performs at SeaWorld, albeit without direct interaction with trainers.