Sundance 2013 Review: BLACKFISH is an Important Look at Animal Captivity

Contributor; Los Angeles
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Sundance 2013 Review: BLACKFISH is an Important Look at Animal Captivity

Blackfish is the latest documentary from Gabriela Cowperthwaite. It chronicles a series of injuries and deaths at SeaWorld theme parks by their captive orca whales. The main through-line is the case of Dawn Brancheau, a senior animal trainer and safety guru at the Orlando park, who was unexpectedly killed in 2010 by Tilikum, an orca that is both the most dangerous and treasured asset of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.

The story begins with Tilikum's capture the coast of Iceland and journey to SeaLand of the Pacific, a now defunct marine theme park in British Columbia. From the first interviews of the documentary on, one immediately starts to question the morality of removing these magnificent creatures from the wild and displaying them for our entertainment. Research over the last several decades has shown how smart, emotionally caring, and peaceful these whales are. There are zero reported cases of orcas ever attacking a human in the wild.

In captivity, however, the situation is very different. Orcas at SeaWorld have attacked and killed several people, all covered up by the company, who blamed mistakes by the trainers and not their business focused practices, subpar facilities, and incomplete safety regulations. Blackfish has a multitude of interviews from former SeaWorld trainers, OSHA expert witnesses involved in the investigations of the deaths, marine biologists, and even some of the men involved with capturing Tilikum in the early 1980s. SeaWorld declined to be interviewed.

The documentary is tightly edited and well structured. The footage the filmmakers found is impressive. Some of the footage of the attacks is so frightening that it's hard to watch. Most of these clips are shown without sound, I suspect because the screams and frantic splashing would be far too intense. Fortunately, these scenes are few and far between.

The interview subjects are charismatic, interesting, and articulate. There is a impressive amount of information given in this 90 minute film - but it doesn't feel overwhelming. Considering how sad the subject matter can be, this movie is surprisingly entertaining and enjoyable to watch.

This movie is sure to be compared to fellow Sundance doc The Cove. However, there is one important distinction that must be noted. Those who found The Cove too horrifying to watch, might expect to feel the same about Blackfish. They shouldn't. The Cove showed humans brutally slaughtering dolphins. A sickening sight. Blackfish on the other hand, shows clips of animals acting out by attacking humans - and for whatever reason, this is much easier to stomach.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Blackfish is that it feels too one sided. SeaWorld is made out to be villainous in every way. However, during the film's Q&A, several of the interview subjects talked about how they don't want to condemn SeaWorld, but instead want them to evolve. SeaWorld does a lot of good for educating the public and inspiring children's fascination with sea life. This is important and had it been expressed within the documentary, it would've made the argument against the worst practices of SeaWorld much stronger.

The other problem I have with many documentaries of this ilk, is their lack of "what's next in this fight." It's a decision that every issue based documentarian must make. Is this purely informational or can it be a call to arms. Cowperthwaite opted for the former, which for my money, is the wrong choice. One finishes this documentary feeling saddened and helpless. There is no talk of what is being done to rectify the situation and no information of what the viewer can do to help.

The Cove was very much a call to arms and it had a profoundly positive impact on the practice of the slaughtering of dolphins in Japan. I truly hope that Blackfish can achieve the same, despite its journalistic remove. There are immoral atrocities going on that few know about, but that must be rectified. To take on a juggernaut like SeaWorld, the best hope is to not only bring awareness, but to start a dialogue between the experts, the fans, the animal lovers, the trainers, and the company itself. Blackfish has the potential to take our society on the first step in the right direction - but only if it gets seen. Luckily, the solid solid storytelling makes for a compelling and entertaining documentary that has the potential to spread across the globe - just like the SeaWorld franchises it's working to fix.

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Gabriela CowperthwaiteEli B. DespresTim ZimmermannTilikumJohn HargroveSamantha BergMark SimmonsDocumentaryDrama

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ChristopherJanuary 25, 2013 3:53 PM

"There are zero reported cases of orcas ever attacking a human in the wild." - and why is that? It seems like they only attack when they're being captured... hmmm. That's soooo strange. You mean... animals DON'T like being captured? Well holy shit.

"Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Blackfish is that it feels too one sided. SeaWorld is made out to be villainous in every way." - It might seem that way maybe because... oh I don't know... it's true?
I don't think anyone could ever give me a sound reason as to why it's so important to take animals from their natural habitat purely for entertainment purposes. Bottom line is, we don't need seaworld, we don't need zoos, we don't need to take animals away from their families for people to go, "ohhhh. ahhhhh".

What I think is even more ridiculous is picturing the people who watch The Cove or Blackfish and thinking about the poor dolphins and the poor whales while scarfing down a hamburger with cheese and bacon on it. Brilliant.

Todd BrownJanuary 25, 2013 5:17 PM

A good zoo absolutely does not exist purely for entertainment purposes. Zoo breeding programs are keeping scores of endangered species away from extinction.

JVJanuary 26, 2013 6:07 PM

Alex, this is a solid review, and thank you for attending the Q&A session after the show. I was a part of the group on stage, a cast member. Late in the movie Samantha Berg articulates the notion of retiring select whales to sea pens, where they can enjoy their final days in retirement, appreciating the natural rhythms of the sea. That, to me, qualifies as a vision for the future. Additionally, SeaWorld does "educate," as you pointed out, but often times they use educational opportunities to mis-inform. Examples of this are when they mis-represent orca lifespans, and also the prevalence of dorsal fin collapse. In both cases they distort info to urge the public to believe that captivity is a desirable place for their animals to be. So, at best, SeaWorld needs to heed the scientific literature more, and stop using corporate talking points to "educate." It would have been nice had they cooperated more with the filmmaker, but their behavior has been consistent over the years. This is a secretive industry that hides behind an elaborate PR machine, that signs deals with companies like the NFL's Miami dolphins, to cross promote the idea of happy cetaceans in tanks. There was one X trainer [that is an industry insider] that provided a voice for SeaWorld in the film. Gabriela also used video footage and animation to provide actual sworn testimony made by SeaWorld. Thanks for the review.

AlexJanuary 26, 2013 7:01 PM

Thanks, JV. I don't disagree. SeaWorld is definitely villainous in many ways. I just would have liked to see a little more about where SeaWorld is coming from besides the bottom line, since many of their employees are clearly animal lovers, who were, in part inspired by going to parks like these as kids. Since that's the case, I would have loved to see more specifics on how they could evolve to have fewer captive animals and more scientific information presented in a way kids could love seeing. That being said, I did really like this documentary and despite some nit-picky criticisms, I truly hope it gets seen by multitudes of people!

AlexJanuary 26, 2013 7:06 PM

Christopher, thanks for your comments. You make some very good points.

I agree with Todd though - The rehabilitation practices and local/indigenous animal breeding programs. Also, the fact that zoos can be really inspirational to people, especially children, to want to help animals and nature. Modern zoos are getting better and better at making animal friendly habitats, and while I agree that animals shouldn't be taken out of the wild, these situations are more complicated.

ChristopherJanuary 26, 2013 8:47 PM

I definitely agree about the whole "good zoo" comment. But realistically how many of those are there? And... now I know we could go at this like cats and dogs, but bottom line is, we wouldn't need "good zoos" if we weren't poaching animals all the time and encroaching on their habitat.