What’s it About?
Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. Blackfish shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
“Blackfish,” from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story), is a brutal, graphic and eye opening documentary which depicts the gruesome and unpredictable, years long, interaction between the majestic killer whales of “Sea World” and their troubled trainers. The film is uncompromising (and of course somewhat biased) and the subject matter is important and relevant. Cowperthwaite’s film may feel like it has an agenda (The movie falls just short of completely vilifying Sea World) but most of the time it feels very honest, sincere and ferocious.
This puts the film into a different light. The exposure, throughout the many terrible years of trainers having been severely injured or killed, of Sea World’s tactics behind catching and training young Orcas is amazing to experience.
Cowperthwaite’s Doc puts us right into the heart of what could be considered greed, cruelty, neglect and bad publicity. The irony is that these things are not only suffered by the killer whales but by the very vulnerable trainers and ex-trainers of “Sea World.” This makes the movie harsh and glaring. Using old news articles, video clips and past and present testimonies from trainers and others, “Blackfish” leaves no stone un-turned. The movie is multi-layered and complex.
It unfolds with numerous testimonies and video to accompany the grueling stories expressed by everyone from those who actually captured the whales to the widows and family members of those affected by the attacks from these large mammals. One, in particular, is the harrowing story of a brilliant trainer named Alexis Rodriguez, who was attacked and killed by transplanted Orcas, in a Spanish Aquamarine park named “Loro Parque.”
The film also follows the history on the one killer whale which becomes infamous for attacks and un-characteristic behavior since his capture. The Orca’s name is Tilikum. The ex -trainers and the rest express how Tilikum should have never stayed as long as he had leading up of the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. They get emotional, angry and sometimes lose their composure when talking about the incident.
Even before all of this transpires, we get multiple opinions as to the treatment, training and exploitation of these Orcas by all parties involved. At times, we hear about how some females are separated from their calves, some Orcas attack others and how trainers are grabbed by their feet and legs in an attempt to pull them under. One trainer, who showed resolve and calmness, barely makes it out of one tank alive when one Orca latches on and will not let go.
Watching all of this is so astounding but unusual. It indeed shatters our conception of how these Marine Animal Parks are run. Yeah, it may not be the most fair or objective piece, but you just can’t help but be appalled and even a bit disturbed by what transpires behind the scenes. The trainers really love these animals and they would never harm or wish them any pain. The twist is (and some of them reveal this), that they are all caught between a rock and a hard place, as the result of working for a billion dollar organization that cannot be touched. The trainers know that so much of their daily lives with the Orcas are made up of lies and bold faced deceits but for their love of the whales they keep working and facing obstacles.
One of the ex trainers, Samantha Berg, breaks down some session video that was taken of Tilikum and Dawn in which Tilikum does not respond to a “bridge” command and keeps performing a perimeter dorsal wave before the attack. What happens after is that Tilikum is denied food and he gets edgy. This sequence is painful to watch but indeed very important to witness. It is a blood curdling set up and we are horrified by the results. There is a lot of emotion in this film and it isn’t all “Sea World” bashing either. Everyone involved adds their own passion, regrets, misgivings and dismay.
From everything like the death of Dawn to the treatment of the whales and even to the double standards involved with working in a Marine Park where the killer whales are kept. Cowperthwaite’s beautifully shot film will provoke many and disturb others. If you feel that it may have an agenda, and may be one sided, you may be right. Be warned, though, these people are all witnesses to the various violent tendencies of Tilikum and other whales. They are definitely sincere and feel that they have a story to tell in order to discuss and shed light on the dis-respect to both the animals and the trainers. That, along with all the footage of trainers with the animals, is what impressed me about this movie.
“Blackfish” is alarming, traumatizing and it is hard to ignore. It is hard to keep your composure after watching this. Some of the mechanisms, methods and politics will shock you and make you look at these amazing creatures in a totally different light. Tilikum remains in captivity and because he is used for his semen to breed, is kept that way. But according to the trainers he is just about lifeless and appears depressed. Can you really blame him when he isn’t even free? This is a must see, gang. Highly recommended.
– Sea World refused to comment on the film
– Trainers are now forced, by ruling, to remain behind barriers for their safety.
– Sea World has appealed that ruling.
– The Dawn Brancheau Foundation 5k Run raises money for Dawn’s favorite charities.
Trainers and others who appeared in this Doc:
Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Mark Simmons, Jeffrey Ventre, Kelly Clark, John Hargrove, Kim Ashdown, John Crowe, Suzanne Allee, Estefania Rodriguez (Widow of Alexis Rodriguez) and Ken Balcomb