After twice missing out on sold-out Blackfish at Sheffield Doc/Fest, it was recently given its limited UK release and came back to the city at my local independent cinema, The Showroom. It was worth the wait.
The following set of paragraphs that discuss the depth and depravity of the topics covered in Blackfish should come as no surprise to those familiar with Dogwoof. These are the documentary distributors who have released the likes of Food, Inc., The Age of Stupid, Chasing Ice & The Spirit of ‘45 in the last few years alone, with The Act of Killing and Blackfish following this summer. Blackfish is a tale of Beauty and the Beast. It’s the real-life story of Frankenstein’s monster. The documentary is both cautionary regarding the nature of animal instincts and also an intriguing insight into the psychology of human behaviour, following on from greats such as Grizzly Man.
And yet one of the key differences between this film and the protagonist in Werner Herzog’s 2005 gem is that the trainers (now ex-trainers) come off as sympathetic and understandable in their actions, because the footage of the whales renders them as cute, harmless and anthropomorphised in many ways. Whether it’s because we innately believe whales to be more “trainable” than bears or perhaps because in Blackfish the ex-trainers can explain their personal views, actions and regrets, it holds true nonetheless.
The amount of former SeaWorld trainers who make up the majority of the contributing cast in this film is a testament to the impact of initial deceit and post-role revelation of corporate stooge, with only one real non-dissenting voice amongst them. This, to the credit of the director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, isn’t to say that the organisation itself wasn’t asked to appear. The closing credits make it clear that the documentary makers approached SeaWorld on several occasions. No doubt SeaWorld were hoping Blackfish would be a mere flash in the pan, but instead it generated heat and acclaim from critics and audiences alike, playing at festivals including Sheffield, Sundance and Sydney (in order of glitz and glamour, obviously), and only days ago received a tweet from Ellen Page, and in turn, a supporting tweet from Evan Rachel Wood.
This reaction led to SeaWorld releasing a statement that directly challenged 8 separate claims within the film, which itself prompted a response from the filmmakers who in turn retorted to every counterclaim put forward. Just days ago, SeaWorld responded once more, with the vice president of zoological operations at San Diego having his say in the midst of a flurry of opinion and outrage which will surely rage on. Whilst the film deserves to shock and impact individuals on its own terms, the gist is that it explores the recent death of a trainer at SeaWorld – as well as those injuries, deaths and close-calls of the past – in an attempt to discover whether the practices really are justified. Is this sport, a circus, prison or a mix of these with other factors added in? Again it’s interesting that, for whatever reason, SeaWorld manages to get away with a family-friendly atmosphere and an image of having “trainable” animals, whereas horse racing and bull-fighting tend to get a much rougher ride from armchair activists.
The undisputable fact is that SeaWorld keeps these animals in captivity, but the extent to which they manipulate their “talent” is the difficult part to digest. The tortuous images of the separation of mother and child – and the whole familial pact in fact – are just the beginning of a horrific set of experiences over the life of these orcas. On top of this, they’re subjected to confined spaces for the majority of each day, are harmed by one another, and are kept in line on a strict punishment/reward system. Contrast these sights with the amazing footage of whales in the wild, sailing through deep waters majestically in groups of rhythmic synchronisation, and your heart can’t help but sink.
However, unlike the orcas, the issue’s not quite black-and-white.. They smile, they roll around and play tricks, they listen and respond, and are happy – or at least appear to be (admittedly they also like Alien when they open their mouths on occasion). The problem is that, just as they aren’t truly content (but are referred to as “frustrated” on many occasions by experts), neither is it likely that they indisputably understand us. Great, intelligent creatures they may be, but the line between help and harm is a thin and often indistinguishable one for creatures such as these – with particular focus on the orca known as Tilikum – as is proved by their actions.
The film appears to be letting up as it heads into the home straight, but instead veers away from additional interviews to focus in on numerous trainer attacks in the past few years, a gruelling but necessary process. One is followed by another, leaving the viewer dazed and with a desire to come up for air, exactly as intended. It also hammers home the message, not in a scattergun approach or sporadic manner, of just how frequent and many in number these attacks actually are. One of the most extraordinary incidents depicts a trainer being repeatedly pulled under, but his calm and collected manner in a life-or-death (sink or swim) situation gets him through, and quite possibly his relationship with these animals helps to save his life.
It’s for this reason – coupled with the apparent human tendencies that they display – that the viewer can really relate to the decision to name these animals, to bond with them so closely, and to believe – if somewhat naively – that attacks don’t happen, and that trainers will be safe. The truth is that the stunning shots and poetry-in-motion that is the movement of the whales in the water – whether at SeaWorld or at home – is stunning. It’s a mesmerising doc in a great many senses, no more so than in its visuals. And the existence and tracking down of the video footage capturing these unbelievable moments, including the life-and-death attacks, is one of those rare and fortunate things.
What Blackfish does so well is to make a profound comment regarding a particular aspect of society as we know it. It’s a true testament to the power of documentaries, and 2013 overall is shaping up to be a staggering year for the non-fiction film. The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell, We Steal Secrets, Fire in the Blood & Dirty Wars are just the tip of the iceberg about storytelling concerned with controversial and powerful topics in politics, history and society, including genocide, medicinal malpractice, war crimes and political leaks. Add Blackfish to the list: it’s An Inconvenient Truth for animal lovers everywhere. Make no mistake: it’s not an easy watch, but I adore this film.
Blackfish is still playing in selected cinemas around the country and was yesterday (August 26th) released on iTunes and on DVD.