SIFF Film Review – Blackfish

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Blackfish Movie PosterI’ve always had an uneasy relationship with zoos. On the one hand, I love the opportunity to see all sorts of exotic animals up close that I otherwise would only see on television. On the other, I recognize it is terrible that these amazing creatures are taken away from their natural environments and are locked in cages for our amusement. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish cuts right to the heart of this issue by taking a look at the consequences of keeping orca whales in captivity, culminating with the death of highly respected SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

Any documentary concerning animal rights is certainly going to be controversial, and Blackfish is no exception. The story unfolds in parallel, cutting between the narrative of Tilikum (a killer whale believed to be responsible for the deaths of three people, including Brancheau) and interviews with ex-trainers, visitors, fishermen, and scientists, some discussing their experiences with Tilikum directly, some discussing orcas and the dangers of captivity. A huge amount of credit has to be given to Cowperthwaite for her handling of the project. She does a fantastic job of constructing a narrative story for Tilikum, and the detail used in telling the events that lead to the deaths is impressive. Despite the clear underlying message of the movie, information is handled very fairly; it would’ve been incredibly easy to turn this into an opportunity to speak from a soapbox, a technique that I think frequently loses the support of people towards groups like PETA, whose message, in theory, is one that should be popular.

Having not grown up in the Pacific Northwest, and perhaps showing my ignorance towards national/international news, I was not aware of Tilikum’s history, the death of Brancheau, or the shockingly poor standards at some of the other zoological parks such as Sealand (where Tilikum’s story begins) and Loro Parque. Because of my naiveté or ignorance, the film came as somewhat of a revelation. One of the biggest strengths of the film is its use of archival footage; the material Cowperthwaite was able to find is amazing. She doesn’t actually show the death of Brancheau, but does show footage building up to it, as well as from other orca attacks. While there is nothing showing extreme violence, the footage is at times very disturbing, and viewers should keep that in mind before deciding to go see the movie. There is some blood, and there are some life-threatening situations, but the film does a good job of using these moments to reinforce the point it makes rather than purely for shock value. The footage does reinforce the power of these incredible animals and is a disturbing demonstration of the consequences of keeping them in captivity. While the film doesn’t attempt to draw any comparison between animal captivity and prison, the parallels are hard to ignore.

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Perhaps the most surprising part is hearing the story of the ex-trainers, people who, not unlike myself, loved animals, and got into the industry because of that. They each ultimately found the experience challenging because they realized the animals were much more sentient creatures than they ever knew. One of the biggest myths that the film dispels is the notion that animals are safer and live longer in captivity; the physical and psychological effects shown are quite shocking. The comparison between the myth and reality is provocative, through the use of undercover camera footage from a SeaWorld guided tour and what scientific evidence actually says. Almost more moving than the archival videos, hearing these trainers speak from their experiences with orcas really did a powerful job of communicating their love for the animals and the frustration they saw in their treatment.

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The elephant in the room for the movie is that, for a story discussing Sea World in large part, there is very little actual connection with the company to share their perspective. Besides court records and the interviews with their former trainers, there is no direct interaction with the company itself. Certainly, this was because of a conscious decision on Sea World’s behalf not to participate, but it is hard to not feel at least a little bit like the movie might be coming off as a hit piece against them, regardless of how fair and evenhanded the filmmakers are trying to be. Even with how monstrous SeaWorld looks at times during the course of the documentary, I still would’ve liked to hear their response to the footage and scientific data.

Blackfish’s focus is on orcas, but certainly the discussion is applicable to zoos in general. I have been to a wide variety in my life and while some were more respectful in the treatment of their animals than others, the question of whether having animals in captivity is beneficial or harmful always remains in the back of my mind. Blackfish didn’t necessarily resolve the issue once and for all for me, but it certainly made it a lot harder to justify my affection towards zoos. This is a must-see for anyone who has ever thought about the subject.

Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite at SIFF 2013.




Spencer was born and raised in New Mexico. He grew up with the many great films of the 1980’s before having his world rocked after seeing The Usual Suspects. He moved to Washington State to go to the University of Washington, and currently any free time he currently has is split between working on film projects and watching films.

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