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Genre: Documentary

Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite 

Back in 2010, Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove took home the Best Documentary Academy Award for its alarming insight into Japan’s cruel dolphin hunting culture, and now it seems another marine mammal study could be poised to take home this year’s prize.

Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, centres around the infamous SeaWorld killer whale Tilikum, a 12,000 pound Icelandic bull orca, who has been involved in three of the four recorded human fatalities caused by the species. While Tilikum’s story forms the backbone of the film, with each ‘incident’ analysed in detail, Blackfish is more a study into the dubious business practices of corporate aquaria, and the risks we take by using some of nature’s most powerful apex predators as interactive fairground attractions.

Far from portraying Tilikum as a vicious monster, Blackfish makes the viewer feel sorry for the animal, with marine biologists discussing the potential effects captivity has on these intelligent creatures, with one suggestion that separation from his pod aged 2, and subsequent isolation has driven the whale to psychosis.

The ‘villain’ that emerges from the piece is SeaWorld themselves, who, if the film takes a wide audience, will have a lot to answer for. Myriad examples of their callous ethics are highlighted here: their brutal illegal poaching in Puget Sound (a grizzled crew member recounts the experience like a traumatized war veteran), their treatment of the whales – who are deprived of food if they do not perform well, kept in pitch-black tanks overnight and separated from their young (the shrill cry of a orca attempting to communicate with its lost calf will stick in your ear like a switchblade) – and their PR manipulation, quick to shrug off any responsibility for the attacks that occurred.

A group of former SeaWorld trainers, recollecting their days as tanned young rodeo-clowns with a blend of bleak humour and restrospective naivety, provide the bulk of the interviews for Blackfish. Superficially, it comes across as an incredibly fun job – they form an emotional bond with the orcas that no doubt makes it difficult to conceive that they could be turned on at any minute. Savagely critical of their former employer, they accuse their higher-ups not only of cruelty to the animals, but of wilful deceit – none of the trainers were aware, when SeaWorld bought Tilikum, that he was responsible for the death of a young trainer, Keltie Byrne, at his former aquarium in Canada.

Each death was glossed over and dismissed by the aquarium as trainer inexperience or accident, but when Tilikum killed veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, even SeaWorld’s finest spin-doctors struggled, attempting to blame the incident on Brancheau’s ponytail distracting the animal – a claim the documentary angrily refutes.

Blackfish stops short of showing the footage of trainer deaths – if it still exists – and rightly, doing so would push into ‘snuff film’ territory, and the autopsy reports are grim enough. Nonetheless, the viewer is shown several near misses caught on tape, and these are immensely difficult to watch, highlighting the sheer unpredictability of these creatures.

Cowperthwaite keeps things simple, letting the trainers, biologists and the footage tell the story, with only occasional stylisations (the legal pad animations for the court cases are a nice touch). Blackfish perhaps raises questions rather than driving a simple point – with the ethical complications of captivity, there likely isn’t just one – but emerges as a terse, intriguing and profoundly disturbing documentary.


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