‘Blackfish’ uncovers truth about killer whales
Santa Monica College students were exposed to the unsettling images and testimonials of the inhumane treatment of captive orcas, which focused on the core journey of the most notorious killer whale, Tilikum.
On Feb, 24, 2010, during one of SeaWold’s routine shows, Dawn Brancheau, who had worked for more than 16 years to become one of SeaWorld’s most well-known trainers, was attacked by Tilikum and violently killed due to resulting traumatic injuries.
This was the event that sparked director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s investigation, she said in an interview with Movie City News. Over time, the project culminated into the documentary film “Blackfish,” which opened earlier this year to a limited release and was brought for a screening to SMC on Oct. 11.
Unfolding like a murder mystery, the film strikes hard by investigating the accident like an actual homicide. By exploring the horrifying depth to which orcas like Tilikum are turned into theme park attractions, the film uncovers unsettling truths about captive orcas around the world.
Beginning with the depressing footage of baby orcas being taken from their mothers, and crescendoing into the unsettling attack on Brancheau, the film always reminds that there is a disconnect between whales’ natural lifestyle and their imprisonment.
The film argues that there is a deeply embedded psychosis creating these unnatural instances like the atrophy that folds the dorsal fin of a captive orca.
By detailing the sequence of events that led to the Brancheau incident, the film creates an empathy and appreciation for the animals. The serenity achieved by just showing the animals in their natural environment is enough to create a tenderness often overlooked.
From defining the emotional capabilities of the orcas to explicitly showing the animal’s propensity for violence in barriers, director Cowperthwaite leaves no stone unturned. The film gathers a pool of testimonials that create dimensions for the deadly incident.
Why did it happen?
Maybe it was the kidnapping of the babies, according to a whaler. Maybe it was the cramped conditions that led to its insanity, according to a trainer. Maybe it was trainer error, according to SeaWorld officials.
The amount of thought put into the complexity of the issue eloquently depicts this organic picture.
However, the film takes a dark turn when the antagonist appears in the form of SeaWorld, the most well-known commercial entity profiting from orcas.
When footage of brutally disturbing orca attacks are shown, they are often followed by an abrupt cut to an idyllic SeaWorld commercial. This juxtaposition hammers the theme of unveiling the hidden mistreatment of Tilikum and others.
This technique is effective in conveying a dramatic point but ultimately feels grossly manipulative. SeaWorld’s refusal to comment on the accusations opens the door for the film to sensationalize the corrupt nature of the theme park, which becomes overt especially in the second half of the movie.
SeaWorld is the major enemy that is set to lose the most if these practices are revealed. But this specific depiction is somewhat limited given the maturity in which the film preceded in its first half.
Besides that gripe, the universality and importance of the film is realized when SeaWorld, in all its bureaucratic dominance, manages to have an effect on long-term, global grounds. It shows that the profit-oriented decisions of commercial entities like SeaWorld and Spain’s Loro Parque turn living creatures into non-sentient objects.
At one point, the film reveals the exploitation of Tilikum’s sperm as a means of impregnating and selling offspring to other parks. And as gross as that reads on paper, it’s even worse in film.
Although the documentary loses a bit of its credibility because the way the film exploits SeaWorld echoes the theme park’s mistreatment and exploitation of Tilikum, “Blackfish” is essentially a movie that finds power in presenting the repercussions of captured orcas by being impartial.
Ultimately, the film’s harrowing journey contends that Dawn Brancheau was not a victim of a killer whale because of “trainer error,” but because of corporate greed.