Environmental documentary unfolds like marine murder mystery
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Documentaries about how we human beings are screwing up the planet, destroying our environment, messing with the food chain and treating our cousins in the animal kingdom with something less than respect should be essential educational viewing. But they’re often too depressing for average filmgoers, for whom a head-in-the-sand approach to life is the preferred course of action. Admittedly Blackfish—an attention-grabbing documentary from the newly launched CNN Films—presents some mighty upsetting information about the process of capturing, training and exhibiting killer whales. But the information is offered up in such a gripping manner that other would-be environmental filmmakers would do well to sit up and take notes.
For starters Blackfish zeroes in on a single, easy-to-follow story that perfectly encapsulates what the filmmakers are trying to say. That point of focus is a killer whale by the name of Tilikum. He is the largest orca in captivity. In 2010 he was infamously involved in the death of his longtime trainer Dawn Brancheau. How and why Tilikum killed Brancheau is examined with all the tension and revelation of a highly psychological murder mystery. The clues, the backstory, the court testimony, the coroner reports, the dramatic twists, the tragic victim and the suspect with a rap sheet as long as a giant squid tentacle: All are unveiled like an episode of “CSI” lensed by PBS.
To hear officials at SeaWorld tell the story, no Orca has ever acted aggressively toward a human. Every “accident” involving a killer whale has been the result of “trainer error.” Somebody did the wrong thing, wore the wrong thing, slipped and fell into a tank or otherwise screwed up. There’s no way highly intelligent creatures angry, frustrated and borderline psychotic from decades of enforced captivity could possibly snap and lash out at those around them. No way. Not a chance. It’s so obvious, in fact, that SeaWorld officials refused to speak on camera for this film.
But in interviewing former SeaWorld trainers, speaking with scientists, digging up piles of home video footage and uncovering countless hastily hushed-up incidents at marine parks in Canada, California, Florida and Spain, the filmmakers make an ironclad case that violence on the part of killer whales isn’t just possible—it’s downright common. In fact it’s probably inevitable.
By tracing Tilikum’s life story—from his youthful capture near Iceland (a result of Washington state telling SeaWorld to get the hell out of its waters) to his continued performance schedule in Orlando—Blackfish builds a powerful, three-dimensional portrait of a violent repeat offender. Not only is SeaWorld cognizant of the danger its seemingly compassionate and dedicated trainers face, it’s acutely aware of the danger that Tilikum presents. Over the years this particular whale has attacked numerous trainers and has been directly involved in the deaths—deaths, mind you—of three people. And yet he’s still at SeaWorld doing his watery dog and pony show. If this reminds you of the Catholic Church shifting child-abusing priests from one parish to another, it should. The root of the problem lies not with the individual, but with the institution.
What’s most amazing about Blackfish is that we can’t really blame the killer for what he’s done. Like some character on “Oz” or “The Wire,” we learn to sympathize with him. The biology and the psychology of it all is laid bare for us to see. It’s not like the story of Tilikum is some freak, isolated incident. Given what these animals go through and the unnatural situations in which they’re placed, it doesn’t take a marine biologist to figure out, sooner or later, one of them is going to crack under the pressure. When a 12,000-pound wild animal cracks under the pressure, bad things happen.
Blackfish is as efficient and thorough an evisceration of a business as you can imagine. You will certainly never clap your way through a tourist-choked “Shamu” show at SeaWorld after watching this. But the film is, thankfully, not as demoralizing as 2009’s The Cove—which, convincing as it may have been, was like watching footage of some third world ethnic cleansing. Looked at simply as a nature documentary, Blackfish has a lot to say about these majestic marine mammals and their behavior. But the filmmakers are successful at taking their film to the next level, aiming a sense of righteous indignation at a well-chosen target. It’s not the behavior of killer whales we need to worry about. It’s the behavior of their corporate captors, who have placed profit above common sense and that gut feeling of right and wrong, that we should all be concerned with.