Tilikum the bull orca (Kinosmith Inc.)
It succeeds as a film--and transcends the standard documentary form--because Cowperthwaite goes beyond Tilikum's particular case to a searching investigation of the relationship between animals and humans.
—Alison Gillmor, CBC Reviewer
Ok, so you have a performer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida who has been involved with three violent deaths. Now, if that performer were a human, he or she probably wouldn't be working anymore. But what if that performer is an orca, worth millions of dollars as a tourist attraction?
Blackfish, a passionate and powerful documentary from Gabriela Cowperthwaite, tells the long, sad story of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound bull orca. Taken from his pod as a two-year-old, he has been in captivity for over 30 years. He has endured bouts of solitary confinement, as well as periods of being penned in tightly with other whales that violently attack him.
Tilikum has also been involved in three human deaths: the first, an employee crushed and drowned in SeaLand in Victoria, B.C. in 1991; the second, a man who evaded security and climbed into Tilikum's pen in Orlando; and the third, an experienced SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau , who was killed during a 2010 show.
This is the kind of documentary that takes sides--and the filmmaker is clear about that. Blackfish argues that the conditions of Tilikum's captivity are dangerously unnatural, not just physically but also psychologically, as several on-camera experts suggest. One commentator argues that the circumstances of Tilikum's life have essentially made him "psychotic."
As an angry animal-rights protest against the use of whales for entertainment, Blackfish is brutally effective. But it succeeds as a film--and transcends the standard documentary form--because Cowperthwaite goes beyond Tilikum's particular case to a searching investigation of the relationship between animals and humans.
She tracks some of the legal and economic issues. Tilikum's tale sometimes comes off as an episode of Law & Order, as we follow a court case involving SeaWorld (its parent company, SeaWorld Entertainment, is valued at $2.5 billion) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As we get closer and closer to footage from the day of Dawn Brancheau's death, the film feels disconcertingly like a thriller.
At its most poignant, the doc explores some of the poetic and philosophical issues that we see in films like Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man and Robinson Devor's Zoo. Why do we want to see these majestic wild animals waving at us and performing tricks? What do humans want from animals, and what might that cost the animals themselves?