Hot Docs Review: 'Blackfish'

(USA, 83 min.)
Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Programme: World Showcase (Canadian premiere)
Tilikum at Seaworld Orlando taking a bow.
Photo: Our Turn Productions / Manny O Productions
How many of you saw Rust & Bone? I’ll feel like I’ve failed as a film reviewer if you haven’t, but even if you missed one of last year’s best films, you are probably familiar with its premise that a whale trainer (Marion Cotillard) is gravely injured during a performance with a killer whale. Rust & Bone doesn’t put the blame on the friendly orca, nor does it hold the SeaWorld like waterpark responsible. Stéphanie’s accident during her rocket ride is just a cruel act of fate. Rust & Bone, however, is surely inspired by one of the real-life tragedies that appear in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s extraordinary doc Blackfish.

Blackfish begins with a troubling account of a fatal encounter between man and beast. In the summer of 2010, SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a 12, 000-pound whale during a standard training exercise. Dawn was a trainer who, like Marion Cotillard’s Stéphanie, loved the thrill of performing with these special marine animals. The strange accident, however, just doesn’t jive with SeaWorld’s Flipper-friendly image, nor with numerous accounts that Dawn was one of the safest and most reliable trainers at the park. One colleague describes her as the ideal SeaWorld employee.

Cowperthwaite does a sharp feat of analysis by looking deeper into the case, which prompted workplace safety boards to re-evaluate SeaWorld’s legacy of putting humans in the water with such large animals. It turns out that the whale involved in this incident, a male named Tilikum, had a startling rap sheet citing previous “accidents” with trainers. Blackfish looks at the greater story that emerges if one zooms out from Dawn’s terrible death and sees the larger issue implicated in Tilikum’s aggression.

Blackfish shows that the loss of one trainer’s life is but one example of what results when a corporation creates a spectacle with little concern for the habits of the creatures performing in the centre ring. Tilikum’s hostility is not the product of a natural inclination for violent behaviour, but rather a by-product of his life in captivity. Cowperthwaite reveals the long history of tragic events with whale trainers that are directly connected to the flawed practices of marine parks. Offering numerous interviews with whale trainers (mostly, but not limited to, former SeaWorld employees), whale experts, biologists, and more alongside shocking archival footage of incidents with whales (we don’t see Dawn’s death, thankfully) and sunnier clips of the image SeaWorld projects of itself (which seems offensively incongruous to the testimony offered by the people who work with the whales), Blackfish offers a tightly constructed essay that these whales are not meant for show business. The film’s smart assembly and mixed form demonstrates the insight a filmmaker can gain by performing extensive research and analysis, but also further this insight with the aide of retrospective accounts from parties involved or implicated in the archival case studies. (My criticism/frustration with Let the Fire Burn is wholly satisfied by Blackfish.)

Blackfish explains carefully the elements of habitat and environment that would have precipitated Tilikum to be aggressive towards Dawn. The participants note the differences between the open, natural environment of the ocean, which affords whales stimulation and room to roam (like humans, whales sometimes need space from one another) and the closed, dark confines of a waterpark pool. Blackfish argues that the inhumane conditions of captivity can alter an animal’s behaviour, for orcas have no record of aggression towards humans in the wild. Incidents only began to occur when people put themselves in close quarters with the large whales. If it’s a man-made problem, then the situation should be easily reversible.

Blackfish offers a provocative and convincing exposé that these intelligent animals aren’t meant for a life of confinement and captivity. The disillusionment of the former trainers affords emotionally charged accounts of how the marine entertainment business was simply an accident waiting to happen. Whales seem nice, personable, and friendly (see: Rust & Bone), but the dynamic changes when they’re deprived of the conditions that encourage their natural behaviour. Whales are like humans, who can become depressed when they live in small dank quarters or in isolation. Cowperthwaite uses the taut structure of Blackfish to draw smart parallels between humans and animals that demonstrate how easily we could learn from these intelligent creatures. While the whale music doesn’t enjoy a cathartic Katy Perry moment, Blackfish is a compelling study of the kinship between humans and animals, and how human practices haven’t been kind to our fellow mammals. Blackfish offers a strong accompaniment to this year’s other animal-friendly doc at Hot Docs this year The Ghosts in Our Machine, as it argues persuasively that humans should use their relationship with the animal kingdom to improve the lives of other creatures. It’s only once we decide to learn from these animals that future tragedies will be averted.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 
Blackfish screens:
Thursday, May 2 – 2:00 pm at the Isabel Bader
Friday, May 3 – 9:15 pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information of films, tickets, and show times.

UPDATE: Blackfish opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 19.
UPDATE 2: Blackfish opens in Ottawa at ByTowne Cinema on Sept. 11 and screens at The Mayfair Sept. 20-26