Documentary is one of cinema’s most useful tools when it comes to uncovering injustice and fighting for what is right. Revealing hidden truths and bringing lies to the surface is the main intention of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish. Investigating the causes behind the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, the film strives to prove that the cruelty captivity causes wild animals, such as the might killer whale, is responsible for their vicious psychological and physical damage – as well as the fatalities they can cause to other whales and even humans. Tilikum weighs 12,000 pounds. He is the largest orca in captivity and has been used for breeding repeatedly. Yet, it is Tilikum’s involvement in the deaths of three people that has made him so notorious. Blackfish places all the blame on SeaWorld and those responsible for the inhumane treatment of Tilikum. The documentary uses some shocking archive footage to emphasise the trauma that is experienced by these animals through the removal from their natural habitats, the separation from their families and communities, the enclosed spaces they then have to live in and the controversial methods used to train them. Blackfish is a highly opinionated film that is missing a second voice. SeaWorld refused to be interviewed for the film so there is no defence to counteract the aggressive prosecution of the ex-trainers and whale experts that are interviewed throughout. The film thrives because of the witnesses and personally involved individuals that have chosen to speak for themselves in the film. Combining this with the interviews of experts of the animals, creates a distinct comparison between killer whales in the wild and those in captivity.
There is a lot of debate around the long term damage caused to these animals, especially Tilikum. One moving segment of the film involves the confessions and regrets of a past whale capturer who remains scarred by his involvement in capturing baby orcas and ripping them from their companions and mothers. The narrative moves back and forth from incident to incident; creating disorientation for the audience that represents the chaos faced by these performing sea creatures, throughout their lives. One of the most disturbing facts about the captivity faced by Tilikum is just how little space they have. The tensions and conflict that comes between the whales, who have been forced to live in an artificial family, is worsened by their inability to escape from each other and venture for miles and miles in the freedom of the wild. Blackfish has good intentions at its core. It is the welfare and protection of the killer whale that has driven this film. It is perhaps this attitude that makes the film’s over-opinionated, bias manner forgivable. Blackfish is distressing to watch for a number of reasons. Despite the deaths, cruelty and suffering displayed throughout the film, it is the naivety of the past trainers and their self-confessed blind-sightedness that is the most scary thing of all. SeaWorld may have been wiser to appear on the film as Blackfish leaves you believing them to be manipulative, profit focussed and disloyal to its trainers as well as its animals. The overriding message of Blackfish is a grand one. These are intelligent, wild animals whose lives should not be dictated and exploited. Tilikum himself exemplifies this point through his actions, sufferings and experiences.
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