Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Simran Hans reviews Blackfish…
“If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, wouldn’t you get a little irritated?”, questions a former SeaWorld trainer in Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary about the killer instincts of killer whales. Comprised of grainy archive footage compiled from the home VHS tapes of eyewitnesses, and talking heads ranging from whale experts to former trainers, Cowperthwaite creates a compelling, if occasionally disjointed patchwork piece.
Blackfish centres around the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Young, blonde and beautiful, Brancheau was the poster girl for orca training, earning herself a reputation as one of the best and brightest trainers SeaWorld had to offer. That is, until she was mauled to death by SeaWorld’s most notorious killer whale, Tilikum. The film investigates both the conditions surrounding Brancheau’s untimely death and the unsavoury treatment of Tilikum himself, shining a light on the murky morals of the Florida-based marine theme park.
Though Cowperthwaite herself claims not to be an animal activist, Blackfish does not shy away from exposing the brutality at hand. Showing stomach-churning footage of the capture of baby orcas and their subsequent separation from their mothers alongside the undignified disposal of those who didn’t make it, this film is not for the faint-hearted. 12,000lb orca Tilikum was among those captured and chosen to perform at SeaLand, a Californian precursor to SeaWorld. 4,000lbs heavier than the average orca and far too big for the floating steel box he was kept in, the film’s talking heads suggests that Tilikum’s repeated bouts of aggression were provoked by a life in captivity.
The ex-trainers are quick to anthropomorphise orcas like Tilikum, maintaining that “when you look into their eyes, you know someone’s home”. Imbuing these creatures with human qualities like the capacity for emotion and even linguistic capabilities, Blackfish takes great pains to emphasise a causal link between confinement and killing. Although the suggestion that this physical confinement also takes a mental toll on the animals perhaps strays a little too far into the realm of marine pop-psychology, Cowperthwaite’s sources offer plenty of scientific evidence of these creatures’ staggering intelligence. It is this emotional intelligence that has awed trainers for generations, cajoling them into believing that they and the animal are “a team” rather than prey at the mercy of one of nature’s most powerful predators.
However, what is even more sinister than knowing the outcome of this ill-advised modicum of trust, is the way in which SeaWorld are shown to be complicit in it. Perpetrating blatant lies about everything from an orca’s lifespan (SeaWorld told its trainers that the average orca lives 25-30 years when in the wild, they can live up to 90 years) to the detail’s of Brancheau’s death, it is Sea World, not Tilikum, that is painted as the film’s real villain. Telling the press that Brancheau slipped and fell in the tank, rather than the cold hard fact that she was the third person in twenty years to be dragged down to the bottom of the pool and graphically disembodied, Blackfish is at its best when it delves deep into conspiracy theory territory. As much a tale of corporate corruption as it is the tragic story of animal cruelty on an industrial scale, Blackfish is unrelentingly bleak. And yet, although it occasionally feels uneven (SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the film, rendering Cowperthwaite’s finished product frustratingly one-sided), where it lacks in balance, it makes up for with its gutting emotional punch. This is strong stuff.