Exposé documentaries, of all subject matters, are usually relegated to television schedules. There is something inherent within the televisual medium that perfectly propagates hour-long reporting of a scandal or a tragedy that has evolved over a clear legacy of broadcast news / non-fiction. This proud heritage makes it even more poignant when an obvious exposé with such a televisual structure and subject matter crosses over to the cinema.
Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound Orca Whale that performs at SeaWorld. He was captured in the wild around Iceland in 1983 when he was just 2ft long and immediately transported to a small aquarium in Canada. After a few years of captivity he was involved with the death of a trainer so was sold to SeaWorld, Orlando where he has been ever since. Since he has been there though he has been involved in the death of two further people.
The film explains the process of capturing killer whales and teaching them to do tricks, as well as exploring in detail the reactions that were undertaken by the corporation after the fatalities. The filmmakers are attempting to make the case that there were steps that could have been taken to prevent these tragedies, but safety measures where ignored in order to increase profits…
Early on there is an interview with one of the fisherman who first captured the baby Orcas in the 1970s. He tells the story of having to slice open the baby whales that died during the capture operations and fill their bodies with rocks to sink them, an ugly and illegal act. This horrible image sets the tone for what is to come, but nothing prepares you for the terrifying amateur footage of the whales turning on their trainers – For someone who knew nothing about the cases and how many people had been killed, watching the footage and not knowing what is about to happen is truly horrifying.
The reference to television above is not intended as an insult, the documentary is incredibly effective as a feature length film and is very cinematic at times. There is a clear narrative that introduces the passion and sincerity of the retired trainers that are interviewed, before moving on to the campaign to improve safety in the parks and finally on to the harrowing deaths/near-misses that have occurred.
The editing of the documentary is extremely gripping, especially during the collages of TV news footage that explain the fatal tragedies that occurred. The footage is edited together in such a way that reporters finish each others sentences, poignantly highlighting the saturation of coverage that the incidents got from the mainstream media: a saturation that was predicted from SeaWorld and led them to misrepresent what had happened and blame the trainers other than the whales. This deceit goes against all of the available evidence and science about whale behavior, which has led to a huge backlash against the company in recent years – even more so since this film was released.
The reply to this opinion from SeaWorld apologists (SeaWorld do not feature in the film as they refused to be interviewed) is that the whales are better off in the parks as they medical treatment and protection. Yet the footage of them with scars from the aggressive behaviour they display in captivity, plus the fact that they are sold to Spain and flown (!) to Tenerife just shows how miserable their lives can be.
Blackfish is a film that has the potential to destroy a billion dollar industry. For this reason, I can do nothing but endorse this film…