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Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is a wrenching, heart pounding film. The documentary tells the story of Tilikum, Sea World’s notoriously dangerous, 12,000-pound orca whale. In 2010, Tilikum was involved in his third human death, killing expert whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Through the use of Tilikum’s story, the film exposes gross mistreatment of orca whales at parks like Sea World.
The film opens with the actual 911 call made as Dawn Brancheau was being killed. It is a harrowing opening to a difficult story, and the audience has an immediate, visceral reaction to it. Interviews with former trainers follow, all expressing their disbelief at the death of a woman who was, by all accounts, one of Sea World’s best, most experienced trainers. The film explains her death through an examination of the life of Tilikum and whales like him, following them from their tragic capture off the coast of Iceland to their unhappy lives at parks like Sea World. The whales lead stressful lives, as they are taken from their families and forced to live in a small pool for their short lives.
Much of the film is devoted to the intelligence and humanity of orca whales. Footage of whales living in family groups in the wild, interviews with a neuroscientist who studies the brains of whales, and powerful descriptions of whales exhibiting true emotions are laced throughout the film. Some of the most powerful moments come from interviews with people who have seen whale families torn apart. The whales cry and become withdrawn, just as humans would. This is enough to make even the rough, tough, bearded sailor who was involved in the initial capture of the whales cry. I cried, too.
In addition to these moving stories, the film also utilizes real, often-graphic footage of whale attacks. The former trainers admit that they knew “very little” about the animals they worked with during their time at the park. This resulted in attacks by stressed and angry animals. The footage shown may be graphic for some viewers (I had to cover my eyes quite a few times), but this makes it all the more powerful. The viewer understands the sheer power that a 12,000-pound animal has over its trainer. Humans have much less control over them than we think.
Blackfish is a deeply disturbing film. It questions the wisdom of keeping animals in captivity, the conditions of their captivity, and the ignorance or even complacency of the employees and owners of parks like Sea World. It is an important film that breaks through common perceptions of these parks as places of refuge for animals. They truly are more like us than we can ever know. This film, like the cries of mother whales separated from their children, will be hard to forget.