Review By: Dan Clark
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s latest documentary Blackfish is a stunning tale about the systematic corruption of Sea World and how their practices have led to a culture that places profit over both the safety of its employees and the humane treatment of its animals. Using the 2010 death of a Sea World trainer as its focal point, it attempts to provide evidence to prove that tragedy was not an isolated incident brought on by trainer error—but the product decades of willing negligence of the highest order. Blackfish is certainly convincing with its methods, and will have you rethinking your upcoming family vacation to your local Sea World. While its filmmaking approach is brazenly straightforward, its ability to capture this tragic saga is a reminder of horrors that can occur when humanity underestimates the capabilities of nature.
When a documentary, like Blackfish, so blatantly wears its cause on its sleeve its natural to wonder how much truth are in its claims. Cowperthwaite was evidently aware of the battle she was raging. She came prepared with a multitude of hard evidence that is difficult to dispute. By enlisting the testimony of former Sea World trainers she gives the film an unshaken amount of validity. Trainers who would once gleefully recite the Sea World party lines are now questioning the methods of the organization they once devoted much of their life towards. Their firsthand accounts of their time at Sea World were not filled with malice for their former employer, rather they spoke a sense of remorse for their own past ignorance.
Based solely on the subject matter it’s hard not to compare Blackfish to the Oscar winning documentary The Cove, as both are centered on the mistreatment of marine mammals. On a craftsmanship standpoint Blackfish is not nearly as groundbreaking or technically advanced as The Cove. Cinematically Cowperthwaite’s approach is relatively basic as she relies heavily on talking head interviews and archival footage. There are some well-placed moments of levity, like the use clips from the 1977 B-movie horror classic Orca, which give it a sense of character. Also it demonstrates just how literally people once took the term ‘killer whale’.
Cowperthwaite centers much of the film’s arc on the life of the infamous orca Tilikum, who was responsible for the trainer’s death in 2010. In shocking detail it is unearthed that a multitude of warning sides were prevalent before that moment ever occurred. It challenges not only the treatment of Tilikum, but the legitimacy of keeping orcas in any form of captivity. Cowperthwaite brings an assault that comes from all sides. Everyone from orca researchers to former orca wranglers weigh in with their opinions.
These blackfish are shown to be majestic beings that we have still have yet to fully understand. Their use of language and family structures are much more reminiscent of a human community than the animal kingdom. Cowperthwaite masterfully juxtaposes this cavalcade of fascinating information with Sea World promotions that make these sentient beings into glorified circus acts. This approach, while possibly a bit unfair, certainty helps prove its point.
Beyond the rudimentary moral principles of keeping orcas in captivity there is a methodical investigation into the methods of Sea World and its affiliates. It is apparent there is far more danger to the training of these animals then Sea World lets on. Video footage shows trainers being attacked and in some instances nearly killed by these killer whales. Some argue these attacks are in fact aggressive play, but whatever the cause the video is no less distressing.
What makes Blackfish more than an arrangement of scandalous YouTube videos is Cowperthwaite’s ever-present hand guiding the arc to its full force. Superb editing and a harrowing score also add just the right amount of tautness to go along with its emotional weight. One aspect that is sorely missing is–of course–the other side to this coin. Personally when I watch a documentary that makes no qualms about its stance I hope to see the opposing side well represented. In Blackfish’s case that did not happen. Part of it was out of their control as Sea World refused to be interviewed. The people they did get to argue on Sea World’s side were nothing more than hallow shells used as metaphorical whipping boys. Although the lack of a valid foe doesn’t diminish Blackfish’s effectiveness, it does hinder it from going full circle.