Whale riders – Blackfish review

Blackfish

By Simon Miraudo
November 22, 2013

Forget everything you thought you knew about SeaWorld. The speed with which you reply ‘done’ will depend, of course, on your interest in seeing marine-life up close and personal. For instance, I require little reprogramming, having always been indifferent, the result of a lifelong – and somewhat inexplicable – fear of the sea. (Whatever’s going on underwater, I just don’t want to know about it.) Nonetheless, Gabriela Cowperthwaite‘s documentary Blackfish seeks to alter our understanding of man’s relationship to aquatic animals, just as Werner Herzog‘s Grizzly Man did with bears. And it too does so by focusing on a gruesome – as well as tragically avoidable – death.

The film details the mistreatment of the orca whales incarcerated at these amusement parks, and, as if the circus element of SeaWorld weren’t detestable enough, we learn about their betrayal of under-prepared employees. These whale trainers are hardly the marine biologists they’re purported to be, instead instructed to spout off “facts” that are grossly inaccurate (notably, that whales live longer in captivity). Misunderstandings like that led to the scalping and spinal-cord-severing of 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau in February of 2010, caused by the bull orca Tilikum, who already had two human fatalities to his name. (It should be noted here that SeaWorld itself is no fan of this doco, issuing a point-by-point rebuttal of the movie’s claims.)

Blackfish

Blackfish suggests Tilikum’s murderous moment was far from a random, unfortunate anomaly, nor was it necessarily the fault of Brancheau wearing her hair in a ponytail (as SeaWorld alleged). Tilikum had a long history of violent impulses. And thus arrives the central question: How much blame should be levelled at an animal for behaving as an animal does? Especially when there is demonstrable evidence that animals like these are alternately enraged and depressed when kept behind the glass? Surely SeaWorld needs to accept responsibility for their business model, or better yet, stop existing. (Stamping out the “ugly tourist” culture it encourages would only be a plus.) The amusing animated sequences re-enacting the behind-closed-doors court case between SeaWorld and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reveals their dark side, otherwise disguised by their park’s chipper atmosphere.

Cowperthwaite makes a compelling case against this cruel exploitation by framing it in a way that even the most selfish viewer must agree with: whales will not take to their subjugation kindly, no matter what kind of invented connection humans claim to have with them. Jeff Beal’s sinister score helps make that argument. To quote Werner from Grizzly Man: “What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.” And to also quote from Blackfish’s unconventional companion, Planet of the Apes: “Beware the beast Man… Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.”

Blackfish

Cowperthwaithe is fortunate to have plenty of insiders as interview subjects: former SeaWorld trainers and now anti-SeaWorld advocates. She’s provided with previously unseen tapes of absolutely harrowing events that took place away from the public eye. Even more astounding is the footage of whales breaking from routine and almost taking lives in clear view of a dumbfounded audience. We’re wisely denied the visuals of Brancheau’s demise, instead offered another sequence in which a seasoned professional is dragged beneath the surface of the water – and nearly to his reward – time and time again by a frustrated whale. It is heart-in-your-throat stuff. I feel bad calling actual footage of a man almost dying as being ‘thrilling,’ and yet that’s what it is. We need a new word for Blackfish‘s innately cinematic and all-too-real horror.

4/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews.

Blackfish is now showing in select cinemas.

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