[16 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Man has never done well when it comes to controlling nature. The wild is referred to in said terms because, by definition, it is untamed and difficult to manage. So it makes sense that our feeble attempts at exercising domain over beasts which have no real natural predators would appear so lame. Take the killer whale. Orca is a proud, majestic beast who lives by rules which we humans recognize from our own species frame of reference. In their habitat, they are fiercely loyal, live in clan-like pods, and spend decades raising their young and protecting each other. They don’t do tricks, playfully spray water onto passing tourists, or cotton to being contained in small, confined spaces. Like a stick of dynamite laced with nitroglycerine, ask them to do any of these things and it’s a bomb just waiting for someone to light the fuse.
Blackfish is what happens when human arrogance trumps harsh natural reality. It’s a documentary with an agenda, though how anyone could come away not convinced of its position is positively mindboggling. Using the case of an orca named Tilikum, his propensity toward harming (and killing) humans, and his eventual run in with a Sea World trainer named Dawn Brancheau, it showcases the flawed fool’s paradise we all live in. The subject of a lawsuit between the US government (via OSHA) and the company who owns the theme park, it gave filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite a chance to set the record straight on these majestic creatures, as well as to trace the legacy of the animal at the center of the controversy. We quickly learn of Tilikum’s fate as a captured baby, his run ins with employees both in Canada and the US, and the tragic miscalculations and misinformation that lead to wholly unnecessary ends.
Cowperthwaite’s position is simple - killer whales do not enjoy captivity, do not live longer because of some zoo-like care and feeding, and will lash out in instinctual ways do to the stresses of performing and basic creature infighting and other characteristics. We witness a nauseating whale hunt, explained with pained expression by the Captain who was in charge. Oddly enough, though he now regrets what he did, he defends it as well. Next up, the situation in a sad excuse for an aquarium in the Great White North. There, Tilikum becomes the subject of severe abuse from his fellow whales, turning into a powder keg ready to blow when given the chance. After trainer Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into the sorry excuse for their tank, she was drown by the beasts (who had never seen a human in the water before).
Tilikum is next moved to Sea World in Florida, where another death occurs. This time, an interloper named Daniel P. Dukes apparently snuck into the park, took off his clothes, and reportedly wanted to “merge” with majestic creature. Tilikum responded by mutilating his naked body. Quickly thereafter, Dawn Brancheau met her horrible fate, and along the way, we meet many ex-trainers and Sea World employees who argue against keeping these animals in captivity. While many still praise their time working with the whales, a few also feel duped by a corporate situation which recognized the value in such showpieces. “Shamu = profits,” says one jaded individual, acknowledging that many of the decisions (and the cover-ups over the deaths) were generated on the back of the bottom line, not legitimate safety concerns.
Cowperthwaite also gives us the startling statistic about Tilikum’s siring skills, which means that there are at least 11 of his 21 offspring still being utilized around the world. While there is no connection made between the creature’s aggressive attitude and the actions of his young, the message is pretty clear: use the sperm of some insane whale known to kill people and you get what you deserve (i.e. more deaths). Another shocking element is Sea World’s constant spin. Instead of acknowledging the fact that, just like lion tamers in a circus or handlers in a zoo, wild animals will act wild, the company constantly concocts these weird conspiracy theories and factually inaccurate cover stories to paint their obvious predator as more or less innocent in all this mess. It’s like telling a new bride that she need not worry that her husband’s previous spouses all died under strange circumstances. It’s just coincidence.
One of the more compelling sequences revolves around a run-in with a whale and a male trainer who remains surprisingly calm throughout his entire ordeal. When the creature grabs his foot and drags him down to the bottom of the pool over and over again, the man simply swallows mouthfuls of air and struggles to stay alive. Eventually, the beast grows weary of gnawing on his lower leg and lets go, allowing its victim to swim for it - but not before a last minute change of heart that has everyone around anticipating the worst. In fact, one of the minor flaws of Blackfish is that Cowperthwaite doesn’t show us all of the actual incidents. Instead, we see clips, still photos, drawn recreations, and 911 audio, and while this isn’t a call for some kind of morbid curiosity, the case would be much more powerful with both the truth and its aftermath in full view.
There’s also no balance here - and frankly, how can there be. Cowperthwaite builds such a complete case against the captivity of killer whales that Free Willy wishes it was so effective. We never feel sorry for the big money power brokers who keep feeding the public lies over how wonderful it is to be a wild animal in a cage. We never understand the contradiction between loving the creatures and limiting their lives so. There’s lots of happy tourism faces enjoying the antics in the aquatic amphitheaters, but very little mea culpas on the public’s part. As we critics love to say - if you didn’t pay for it, the providers of this kind of entertainment wouldn’t offer it. It’s supply and demand, and Sea World gets that you all want as much orca as possible. Tilikums are just a necessary hazard of giving the people what they crave.
Like the tiger which attacked Roy Horn and ended his career as a highly paid magician, or the various nameless workers who die every year at the hands of some angry, in captivity beast, man usually makes a mess or trying to modify nature. Blackfish makes this point in powerful and profound ways. It also misses an opportunity to do more.