Blackfish (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Blackfish (2013)

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Size and beautyAndrew LIKE BannerI hate zoos.  The idea of forcing domesticated environments under the guise of an animals natural surrounding has always felt like one of the worst kinds of lies.  They give just enough illusion of freedom to allow each animal to slip into their natural state just for a bit, right before the artificial nature of their world comes crashing down.  It's no wonder some go crazy, or attack their trainers, in a vain effort to get some control back into their lives.

Blackfish, a new documentary from first-time filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is controlled in a way I can't be when it comes to these animals.  Step by step, she lets former SeaWorld employees get that happy glow back just for a bit when they talk about training their Orca friends.  Then, slowly, as they recall the violence and struggle with each outburst, we watch the light fade as they share their realizations that what they are doing is wrong.

Cowperthwaite is right to ground the film in such basic emotions.  At times it seems like the employees could be talking about one of their own children, or a handicapped ward that relies on its differently equipped guardians for guidance.  This isn't her story, but one that she grounds in basic decency, and lets the people she talks to bring up the questions of whether this is right or not.  This is the rare film which might actually change some minds about zoological captivity, as the anger and sadness comes not from any attempts from her to stoke the fires, but from letting people talk from their wounded hearts.

There are few images of the whales in the wild, just enough to contrast with their treatment in captivity.

There are few images of the whales in the wild, just enough to contrast with their treatment in captivity.

The film centers around the near-30 years that an Orca named Tilikum was captured and raised by SeaWorld and its trainers.  This gives Cowperthwaite a narrative to shape the film with instead of giving general examples about the captivity of Orca's.  I suppose she could have gone back and found the stars of the Free Willy films, but invoking that final image of escape would provide a false escape from the Orca's lives.

Because there is so much importance on the individual narratives of the people involve with Tilikum's life, there's a slight danger that the film will just be a series of talking heads giving their stories.  While there is plenty of information shared with the camera this way, almost all the participants, be they business-minded or involved in the training of Tilikum, have footage of them on the job.  Cowperthwaite does an excellent job providing an ongoing narrative illustration of what Tilikum's life has been like.  When needed, she also employs some fictional recreation to illustrate key phrasing in the various hearings about the Orca and SeaWorld's practices.

But despite all the personal stories that are intertwined with Tilikum, Cowperthwaite never lets the business aspect of SeaWorld disappear for long.  The many advertisements talking about Shamu or the new deliveries are cut together with the tales of violence and difficulty in training the massive mammals.  That juxtaposition of illusion and reality is to be expected, but less so her decision to ground every scene with how Tilikum was captured.  Before even getting into the park narrative we're given an illustrated view, narrated by a tattooed man who looks like he's taken a few scrapes, of how these Orcas were taken from their parents as babies.  No matter all the heartwarming, and harrowing, accounts to follow it was the correct step to foreground this knowledge in the film.

Brief interludes add some variety and illustration to the behind-the-scenes fights involving these businesses.

Brief interludes add some variety and illustration to the behind-the-scenes fights involving these businesses.

All this combines to form a very unique viewpoint for the film.  It's not as much interested in the narrative that SeaWorld constructs to continue this business.  But it's the people who helped Tilikum, who convinced themselves that they were the only good in his life, that drives the film.  Those lies are put next to the other falsehoods from SeaWorld employees to tell visitors that the Orca's are better off this way.  Cowperthwaite doesn't crush the lie, but allows it to slowly crack with each story and fact as everyone slowly realizes their role in Tilikum's outbursts.

There's a lot of careful positioning in Cowperthwaite's film to avoid coming off preachy or with the moral conclusion laid out in advance.  That makes the most terrifying scenes where Tilikum shows just how strong he is, that much scarier.  In one unbroken take we watch as Tilikum takes his trainer underwater like a toy, switching from arm to arm, while seconds continue to tick by from our top-down vantage point.  This would be a god's eye view shot in any other film, and here regards the humans as completely insignificant to the giant Orcas.  For all our attempts to control them, when they want to lash out, they will do so.

This is an incredibly well-rounded documentary, avoiding easy demonization in making its point.  It's telling that, in its opposition to the film, SeaWorld released a statement that the tragedies were overblown and that SeaWorld does a lot of other helpful work for sea life.  What it doesn't say is that Blackfish is wrong.

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Tail - BlackfishBlackfish (2013)

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite.

Posted by Andrew

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