Inspired by an incident at SeaWorld Orlando in which an Orca Whale attacked and killed its trainer, Blackfish originated from director Gabriella Copperthwaite’s desire to understand what might cause a highly intelligent animal to “bite the hand that feeds”. The result is a fascinating and tragic documentary that explores the intimate yet uneasy relationship between captive animals and their human caretakers and probes the dark waters of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry intent on self-preservation.
The film begins in typical documentary fashion with a recorded phone call to emergency services played over unnerving footage of the underwater attack. The picture switches to SeaWorld’s own idyllic promotional videos showing whale and trainer gliding harmoniously together in perfectly synchronised acrobatic displays. Seeing the performances for the first time brings about a sense of amazement, as the degree of cooperation involved in the manoeuvres is self-evident. As the trainers describe the playful personalities of the whales, you begin to ask the same question as Copperthwaite; what went wrong?
After these opening shots, Blackfish dives into the back-story of Tilikum, the whale involved in the attack, from his wild beginnings and illegal capture to his history of maltreatment and eventual psychosis. We learn that Orcas are extraordinarily sentient and social creatures with rich emotional lives that have been historically demonised due to a lack of understanding on our part.
Tilikum’s story is told through a series of emotional interviews with the friends and co-workers of Dawn Branchea (the experienced and popular trainer who lost her life). They chart the bittersweet nature of human/animal relationships where a connection is felt but communication is impossible. Working with the whales enriches the lives of the trainers but also results in a conflicted sense of guilt and stewardship, which comes with being party to the animals’ captivity.
The emotional backdrop of the film is offset by appearances from a neurologist and a marine mammal expert whose testimonies offer a deeper insight into the true nature of Orcas and their unsuitability to the enclosed environment of SeaWorld.
SeaWorld are, of course, portrayed as the villains of the piece, accused of indoctrinating their staff and sweeping previously reported violent incidents under the rug in order to protect their profit margins. While Tilikum has been responsible for three deaths, he is also the most successful breeding whale in captivity, two facts that are seen as no coincidence by the filmmaker.
For what is essentially a string of interviews and amateur footage, inter-spliced with cinematic shots of the whales and ironically chosen SeaWorld ads, Blackfish is a surprisingly coherent and compelling narrative. Although the director initially set out to understand the incident “not as an activist, but as a mother (who had just taken her kids to SeaWorld)”, the film has spiralled into a movement in its own right. Blackfish’s promotional website displays live social media responses and a Take Action page linking to various wildlife charities. Indeed, the film’s following has initiated campaigns to “Retire Tilikum the Orca” and even led filmmakers at Pixar to alter the ending of Finding Dory.
My only criticism, however, is not of the film itself but of its advertisement as a “mesmerising psychological thriller” in an apparent attempt to sensationalise what is already a gripping story. The blurb on the official website claims that it shows “how nature can get revenge on man” placing it somewhere between Free Willy and Grizzly Man. Such sensationalism seems to undo much of the good work done by the film to dispel harmful myths about the Orca. In fact, Blackfish plays out more like a tragedy than a thriller by showing just how little the lessons of past events have altered our skewed attitudes towards nature.