' ' Cinema Romantico: Blackfish

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Opening in the vein of horror by showing us the dread that the rest of the film will then pointedly re-build to, “Blackfish” is, above all else, a full speed ahead rebuke not only of the prominent American theme park Sea World but of both the treatment of Orcas in captivity (in Sea World and other places) and the general idea of keeping Orcas in captivity in the first place. It has a side to take, a point to make, and it does so very, very effectively.

In a way, “Blackfish” is akin to a cinematic lawsuit, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and the former Orca trainers turned activists she interviews functioning as prosecutors to argue the case to us, the audience turned jury. It even calls tear-stained witnesses to the stand that work to intentionally tug at our heartstrings. After opening its argument by hinting at the horror, it briefly reverses tracks to show the righteous majesty of the Orca – thus, when the bad stuff starts, and starts soon after, our outrage will be full blown. And it is. I struggle to think how it could not be. It has no qualms about being non-partisan, and though a closing credit indicates Sea World denied to participate in the documentary when asked, well, impartial jury members, would YOU have wanted to be interviewed for this documentary if you were an employee of Sea World? No doubt they would edit your footage to make it say “I killed Earl Milford.”

Cowperthwaite frames the film with the tragic death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau in early 2010 in an incident involving Tilikum, a bull orca involved in two other deaths. Tilikum’s far-reaching story then becomes the focal point of “Blackfish”, as we follow him being captured in the wild and taken to a shanty, “Way, Way Back”-esque water park called Sea Land where he seems to have – and the film argues he did – kill a female trainer that slipped into the water. Despite this, he is eventually moved to Orlando’s Sea World, which is where further tragedy awaits.

The film takes direct aim at Sea World, and parks like it, accusing them of blatantly sacrificing safety and blatantly covering up truths – as in, any trainer’s death is always the trainer’s fault, not on account of Orca aggression, even if the presented evidence contradicts that assertion.

Much like 2009’s Oscar winner “The Cove”, however, the foremost argument of “Blackfish” is that Orcas do not belong in captivity. The case is laid out carefully and emotionally. These animals are not only intended for the open ocean, they can think and feel, and so to keep them shuttered in cramped tanks is inhumane. It also leads to – in the word of one of the interviewees – psychosis, which manifests itself in dangerous behavior. Orcas in the wild are not known to do harm to humans. Orcas in captivity, as we are shown, are another matter, and it is impossible not to draw the conclusion that their living situation leads them to lash out.

Really, “Blackfish” centers much more on the circumstances that led to Dawn Brancheau’s death rather than the circumstances that placed Dawn Brancheau in the position where her death became possible, and I would be remiss in not mentioning that this particular aspect left me wanting. The activists turned trainers get plenty of face time, and the guilt is clear. What perhaps is not so clear is why they continued to remain employed in the face of what they all appeared to know was an ethically corrupt venture. I’m not suggesting they were unethical, not at all, and one interviewee says he stayed because he worried who would care for Tilikum in his absence.

Forgive your humble correspondent for a personal anecdote, but I think it’s relevant. A year ago, one fateful evening I happened to meet a young woman who was in Chicago for the weekend, employed as a trainer of elephants with Ringling Bros. Circus. Certainly, there is much scuttlebutt regarding Ringling's treatment of elephants (and the simple ethics of keeping elephants within those confines). To wit, when another guy sat down opposite of where she and I were sitting and eventually wormed his way into the conversation, his first query upon hearing what she did was inevitably “Do you abuse them?” She literally turned her back on him, and that was that. He left about 47 seconds later. Everything she told me indicated the elephants were treated with the highest regard, and she was, frankly, one of the sweetest, kindest, most genuine people I’ve ever met. Maybe that was all an act, and I was taught to believe the best in people so maybe I was naive, and maybe she was being lied to about what went on under cover of darkness, but maybe not.

With this reminiscence I wish merely to impart that there are two sides to every story. I don't mean this as a defense of Sea World, nor to imply that that their version of the story (which has been released in boilerplate increments) would stand up, because I'm not even talking about their version of the story. I'm talking about Dawn Brancheau's version of the story.

The family-penned obit of Brancheau, not recited in the film, mentions, as obits often do, "living her dream." I'm sure she was, and I hope she was, because so few of us do. Still, there seems something grandly if wretchedly ironic in the thought that one person's dream can be someone else's nightmare. That would be a story very much worth telling.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The film relies on animal rights activists masquerading as scientists