Film

Why 'Blackfish' Is a Documentary Worth Watching, Even if You Know the Story

This substantial documentary displays the genre at its most vital: telling a story for a subject incapable of voicing complaint.


Blackfish

Director: Gabiela Cowperthwaite
Cast: Jeffrey Ventre, John Jett, Dean Gomersail
Length: 83 minutes
Year: 2013
Distributor: Magnolia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images
UK Release date: 2013-11-11
US Release date: 2013-11-12

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Oscar contender for Best Documentary Blackfish is more than just another critically lauded documentary many won’t bother watching—it’s an ideal example of the medium’s power. This substantial doc displays the genre at its most vital: telling a story for a subject incapable of voicing complaint. Focusing on captive killer whales at Sea World, Blackfish breaks down disillusions built by millions of vacationing families and a company hiding the truth from each and every one of them.

But you probably already know all that. By now, there’s not much to be said about Blackfish that hasn’t already been covered by critics, fans, and the media since its debut at Sundance in January of this year. Like many great documentaries, the film took on a life of its own in the news. Many of the facts were dispersed. Many of the film’s discoveries were affirmed. Much of the film’s message has become cultural knowledge, and that’s a testament to its strengths.

Yet nothing you read, no news story you skim, no angry opinion thrown out in your social media feed can replace the powerful experience of actually sitting down and watching Blackfish.

The beautiful and big subjects of Blackfish lend themselves perfectly to a visual medium like cinema, and Cowperthwaite doesn’t disappoint. There are plenty of gorgeous shots of the killer whales both within and outside of confinement. Even some of the older footage captured on VHS cameras or shown on old tube televisions is presented in a visually engaging manner, dutifully serving the subjects. If the content wasn’t so traumatic, Blackfish could be watched over and over in a relaxed state like Planet Earth or Disney Nature films (though it’s not quite as magnificent as the former).

It’s this commanding cinematography combined with the heartbreaking, shocking, and often frightening discoveries that make Blackfish worth its very brief 83 minute run time. It’s not just for animal welfare activists, environmentalists, or bleeding hearts looking for a cause to back. God knows I have my own issues with PETA. Cowperthwaite makes it clear she didn’t go into this with any agenda other than that of a documentarian. In the disc’s relevant batch of special features, she states she’s a “documentarian by trade”. That comes first to her, and it shows in the final product.

Cowperthwaite says repeatedly in the disc’s bonus features, including a commentary track and a special interview with the director after the film’s release, she did not set out to make a controversial film. She became interested in the story after reading of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death in 2010. She said she had been to SeaWorld as a child and again with her own children. The material she presents speaks for itself, and Cowperthwaite lets it. There’s a dearth of sentimentality in the film (thankfully), but what is there is drawn out naturally from remorseful subjects looking back on a terrifying past life.

Two other special features focus on Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute. Dr. Rose was not part of the feature film, but her views seem to (neutrally) coincide with what was said in the film. Titled “The Truth About Wild Whales” and “Alternatives to Captivity”, Dr. Rose discusses practical solutions and specific examples of realistic alternatives. They’re only three-to-four minutes long, but they add another reputable source to the endeavor.

The other four extras focus on one of the subjects already depicted in the documentary. The former SeaWorld trainers tell stories of past practices or touch on subjects just outside the thesis of the documentary. For instance, Dean Gomersail and John Jett discuss how some captive whales’ lives are threatened by mosquitos carrying toxins. The whales would have never encountered these specific mosquitos in the wild, and Gomersail’s account of a whale’s death from the disease is quite grisly.

The extras are just that: extra content. They’re inessential, but compelling to anyone affected by the whales’ plight. Blackfish, though, carries nothing inessential. This is a film of unique quality and insight with a direct or indirect tie to us all. So from one reticent documentary viewer to another, please don’t let Blackfish pass you by.

9

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image