I have a huge documentary post I’m working on that will be up in the next week or two, but I saw a doc yesterday at the theater that was so good that I thought it warranted its own post. It’s called Blackfish, it’s about killer whales, and it’s awesome.
The film’s main storyline is that of Tilikum, the largest orca in captivity, and the backstory leading up to present day. Oh, and this is a backstory that involves Tilikum killing three humans over the course of the last couple decades, by the way. The first was in 1991, when he was unfamiliar with human contact at a Canadian sea park, and a teenage employee slipped and dropped her leg into the water. Tilikum proceeded to drag her to the center of the pool and mutilate her body over the course of several minutes. Despite this, he was sold to SeaWorld Florida; because they didn’t have a male orca, and Tilikum’s massive body size provided them with a suitable sperm donor for their females. He didn’t fit in very well with the other orcas and had a pretty bad life in general. They also kept him in a pitch black 20×30 foot metal container at night, and it probably contributed to him having psychological problems. In 1999, the SeaWorld staff came into work one morning to find the dead, naked body of a man draped over Tilikum’s back (with his genitals torn off, NBD). The guy was apparently a drifter (or just a dumb-dumb), and he snuck into the park after-hours and tried to swim with the killer whale. In what was a super-dark-yet-comical line from one of the interview subjects: “The guy jumped into the wrong tank that night.” Then in 2010, in the most famous case of Tilikum killing someone, he murdered his trainer Dawn Brancheau at the end of a live show in front of an audience… So, to sum it up: Don’t mess with Tilikum.
The documentary explores how much worse life is for the killer whales in captivity as opposed to the wild. That’s a claim that SeaWorld seems to deny, by saying on their guided tours that orcas live 30 years in captivity, which is much more than they do in the ocean. However, marine biologists claim that orcas live up to 80 years in the wild. SeaWorld also tried to cover up both of the killings at their park, claiming they were just drownings and misunderstandings. But evidence and eye-witness accounts refute all of SeaWorld’s claims. There’s a lot of wishy-washy backtracking from the park, and they appear to go to great lengths of “smudging the truth” to ensure the public doesn’t think of Shamu as some sort of murderous psycho killer. Which, ironically, only becomes the case as a direct result of being held captive at SeaWorld.
But the best aspect of this documentary is that it spends most of its duration building a richly detailed history of Tilikum, from his depressing capture as a baby, up to his depressing present day life. Every other story they tell always relates back to Tilikum in some way or another. It’s a character study of a killer whale. Wait, I’m sorry, I don’t think that sunk in good enough into your head… …IT’S A CHARACTER STUDY OF A KILLER WHALE... …How are you not *immediately* interested?!
Blackfish also covers a lot of general knowledge type stuff about orcas. Stuff about how their brains actually have areas similar to humans regarding emotion. Orcas have richly sociable lives, and communicate to each other in different “languages” from clan to clan. They are one of the few species on Earth (including humans) to have self-awareness. They also are very capable of feeling depression and grief. In the heartbreaking scene showing fisherman in the 1970s rounding up orca calves in nets and stealing them away from their mothers, the adult orcas stick around the scene for hours, wallowing, while watching their offspring get taken away. In an interview with an ex-orca-capturer, he equated the practice to “kidnapping a human child”, and also “the worst thing he’s ever done.” And this is coming from a guy who said he took part in South American military coups. A guy who has “seen things.”
The doc very well could have taken a strongly political stance; or resorted to cheap, PETA-like tactics, but it didn’t. It first and foremost told Tilikum’s story. But don’t get me wrong, they showed a lot of other incidents of these animals turning on their trainers. Incidents that were for the most part caught on camera. Incidents that proved that there is no real guarantee that killer whales in captivity won’t all eventually turn on their human companions. Incidents that were super disturbing and suspenseful to watch. It is some intense footage. The film’s dialogue is largely told through interviews with former SeaWorld trainers who actually worked closely with the whales and have a lot of inside knowledge, and they all seemed to agree with one thing: that no matter how close of a connection that they *think* they have with the whales, they are basically powerless against them, and the whales can turn on them for what appear to be seemingly random reasons. This is presented next to the fact that there have been almost no reported attacks of killer whales on humans in the wild. But, ya know, once you throw them into a small tank and force them to do stupid tricks for the rest of their lives, they basically become enormous, floating time bombs.
I’m not someone who is all “save the whales” or whatnot. Not that I don’t care about their well-being, it’s just that killer whales aren’t something I’ve ever invested time into thinking about. It’s probably because these whale attacks on their trainers have happened over such a spread out period of time, that they aren’t really in the public eye. In actuality, they have been happening at a pretty consistent rate over the last four decades, with a wide variety of whales, at many different locations. Once all of this information gets presented to you all at once in this nice little documentary package, it culminates in overwhelming sadness all around. No one knows if Tilikum was acting genuinely malicious towards the humans, or he was just playing around and didn’t know any better, because as another interview subject said, “we don’t speak whale.” But it’s hard to argue against the fact that the creature has been given the short end of the stick in life, and he’s essentially being punished and imprisoned for a reason that solely benefits SeaWorld’s bank account.
My girlfriend and I were having a discussion on the ride home from the movie about whether or not we, as humans, are being cruel for locking up ANY animal in captivity the way we do at zoos and aquariums. I think I came to the conclusion that maybe some animals don’t care either way (like lazy alligators), but perhaps maybe we should stop exploiting killer whales, in particular, the way that we do. Like, if a giraffe’s habitat is about to be destroyed or something; sure, bring him to a zoo, he’ll be better off. But rounding up these baby whales in the open ocean for future entertainment value is kinda wrong, you guys. Just sayin’.
I guess the film’s biggest flaw is that it’s fairly one-sided against SeaWorld. We don’t get the “real story” from SeaWorld’s point of view. But in the end credits the filmmaker says they tried contacting SeaWorld many times, and they refused to comment. So the bias wasn’t really from lack of trying. SeaWorld did it to themselves. But the way this film plays out, I don’t see how you could sit through the entire duration of this movie, and then have a momentary desire to ever step foot into a SeaWorld ever again. SeaWorld came off bad in this one. Real bad.
Blackfish is currently playing in limited release around the country, and you should do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s an important message told in a gripping way. And at only 83 minutes, it’s not even a huge time commitment. If anything, this was one of those rare films that I actually wished was 30 minutes longer. Blackfish is like the exact opposite formula of an epic summer blockbuster, while somehow still coming across more epic than anything else out there. I hope it wins ALL the awards.
9.5 out of 10