Arts movie review

Of orcas and corporations

A heartrending documentary about the truths kept from us



Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Starring Kim Ashdown, Samantha Berg, and Dave Duffus

Rated PG-13

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Blackfish is, by far, the best documentary I have seen this year, and — I would say — it is in the top 10 best documentaries I’ve ever seen in my life. If you think I saying this because I am some sort of activist, think again. The reason I would recommend that you watch Blackfish has nothing to do with the any activism like saving the whales: it has to do with the truth, with the need that we as a society have for the truth, and with how interests converge to keep you away from this truth, in darkness.

Overtly, Blackfish is the story of an orca, Tilikum, who has a record of attacks against handlers, trainers, and trespassers. It is also the story of how a corporation, SeaWorld, has tried to explain away this record in terms of trainer error or accidents stemming from human mistakes. The reality seems to be different: Tilikum, a deeply frustrated and traumatized being, is fed up with his captivity and has found in aggression a way to vent the psychological trauma. Orcas are highly intelligent and more emotional than humans. Orcas that perform in shows like SeaWorld, live a life that can only be seen — in contrast with a life in the open ocean — as miserable, due to confinement, routine, and the separation from family members and their natural environment.

That is the overt story. Underlying it is the true story, the one that pierced me like a harpoon, which I am still dragging to this day almost a month after seeing an advance preview of the movie: we are being lied to, on a daily basis, for the sake of profits. Surprisingly, the government here was not only not the party that was doing the lying, but was a player actively trying to bring to light the risks to which trainers and handlers are exposed in SeaWorld when dealing with the orcas. It is only through the voice of former SeaWorld employees, whom I can only describe as whistle-blowers, that we learn that the corporation knows more than it says to the public, and sugarcoats the ugly reality of orca captivity and of Tilikum’s aggression, so that it can keep the whale as a source of sperm for breeding.

After the screening, I asked the director of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, two questions: Now that you have completed your research for this documentary, what do you think of us as a species, and seeing how corporations have fought in this case to keep the truth away from the public, and seeing how we often fail to protect our whistle-blowers, what hope is there for us as a society?” In her answer she confessed she had thought about those issues, but wasn’t able to provide a solid answer to them. On my way out to the theater, an old gentleman approached me and said: “You stole my question.” I think they were the questions in the minds of all of us in the theater. The problem is that we don’t want to face the answers.

1 Comment
Bruce Lovett almost 11 years ago

I suggest that if you want more information on this issue, please read David Kirby's book "Death at SeaWorld" published last year. It will give you background and facts that BLACKFISH only begins to show....