Over the past few years the animal protection movement has seen an increase in the number of exceptional and thought provoking films being made about everything from factory farming to dolphin slaughter to veganism. Now, “Blackfish”, a new documentary about captive orcas and the story of Tilikum, is raising the bar again. If you don’t get past the first paragraph of this review, I will simply beg you, on behalf of all captive animals (especially orcas), to go see this film. Even if you think you know the full story, I can guarantee that this documentary will show you something entirely new.
I remember back in 2010 when the news broke that veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, one of SeaWorld’s orcas, the news media went back and forth on what might have caused him to turn violent. Was it the coffin sized swimming pool he was forced to live in for his entire life? The fact that he was torn from his family at a young age? His isolation? They questioned why was he still performing with trainers after he showcased violent behavior in the past.
These questions, and so many more, are discussed in this film, and, in my opinion, many are even answered. When seeing Tilikum’s pathetic life, a 12,000 pound orca confined to a swimming pool, a whale viciously attacked on a daily basis by the other orcas with no place to escape to, one can only wonder why he hasn’t had more violent outbursts. This animal has been tortured for decades, mentally and physically. If he’s violent, it’s because of humans and our desire to take something magical and put it in a box for our personal enjoyment. As the film states, there has never been a report of a killer whale killing a human in the wild. This is something of our own creation.
There are few talking heads in this film, no experts who simply share an opinion based on their knowledge of the species or activists pushing a certain agenda. The people who essentially make up the narration of “Blackfish” are former SeaWorld trainers, the man who helped to capture Tilikum and remove him from his pod back in the 80’s, and the people who witnessed firsthand the deaths and injuries of people like Dawn. They provide a unique perspective and intimate knowledge of who these animals are, and what happened when Brancheau was killed.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this documentary is just how much footage we are shown from each of the violent incidents. Cameras are all around the marine parks so nearly every act of violence from an orca towards a human has been documented. “Blackfish” writes about the video content, “Several whale attacks are seen and explained, including a particularly harrowing one involving trainer Ken Peters, who skillfully – and miraculously – survived the grip of a killer whale who refused to release him, dragging him to the bottom of the park’s tank repeatedly for long periods over a torturous 12 minute session of seemingly inexplicable misbehavior.”
They do not show in detail what happened to Dawn (thankfully), but they do show what happened leading up to that tragic event. The former trainers narrate as they speculate on what they believe went wrong that day. It’s an eye opening experience, and one that is all the more tragic because you know that SeaWorld could have prevented it if they cared about their staff and the animals as much as they care about making a profit.
Hearing from the former trainers, people who have worked in the water with Tilikum, is what makes this film to powerful. Most of them joined SeaWorld because they loved whales, then they stayed, not because they thought it was a good life for the whales, but because they didn’t want to abandon them to that sad desperate place. They think back at how naive they were to have parroted back the SeaWorld party lines. (Speaking of that, if you want to ask them questions directly, two of the trainers from the film are doing an AMA, ask me anything, tomorrow on Reddit at 2.30PM PST.)
After watching “Blackfish” I’m so thankful to them for speaking out, and to the filmmakers for creating this documentary. I can safely say, if everyone goes out to see “Blackfish”, SeaWorld will go out of business in a matter of days. It’s that powerful. You don’t just need to take my word for it. It world premiered at Sundance and went on to be an official selection at some of the country’s top film fests. I hope it gets an Oscar nod.
Check out the listings to see when it’s coming to your town and help orcas like Tilikum escape from their sad lives. Never go to SeaWorld.