Many documentaries that position themselves as thrillers have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot by not providing enough facts and making the mystery and suspense take centre stage. That certainly isn’t the case with the gut wrenching and undeniably well researched sea park exposé Blackfish from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Not only does it function as a bit of an anthropological and biological cry for the understanding of animals in captivity under deplorable and cut rate conditions, but it’s also a riveting psychological thriller that puts one into the mindset of understanding a killer.
The killer in question just so happens to be a 16 foot long, 2,000 pound Orca named Tilikum who has killed three people since 1991 in various water parks and is still somehow being used and exploited for his majesty and valuable sperm today. Through talks with former trainers – none of whom were ever hired as actual animal trainers and were given the job and know how on the spot thanks to their charisma and swimming ability – OSHA character witnesses, and scientists, Cowperthwaite looks at how the cycle of captivity and a general misunderstanding of these animals led to wholly avoidable consequences.
There’s an abundance of style on display in terms of how the story cuts together and flows through the murky waters of corporate cover ups and factual misunderstandings about Orcas as a whole. There’s plenty of Sea World training videos (including one starring a grinning James Earl Jones) used to ironic effect and the kitsch of the whale shows themselves run a darkly comedic counterpoint to the seriousness of the situation. It’s a filmmaking style that some might be burnt out on in the wake of Errol Morris and James Marsh, but at least Cowperthwaite is careful enough to not ape either of those documentary icons wholesale. She also thankfully share both filmmaker’s abilities to paint a complete picture on a subject from multiple points of view and subjects willing to admit their own fallibility.
The real narrative thrust and fascination to Blackfish comes from the story of Tilikum himself, for whom Cowperthwaite is able to create a voice through the facts at hand. There has never been a documented case of a supposedly killer whale ever attacking a human being in the wild, so why would Tilikum be prone to such fits of rage? By all accounts, like with many accused killers, he was a sweet, loyal, and kind soul within the body of an animal capable of a greater range of emotional response than that of a human. A constant look into the cycle of keeping him caged up with other animals that would harm him in too small of a tank for 2/3 of his life combined with food depravation could hold the answers, an the answers certainly aren’t for the faint of heart.
It’s a stunning work about the cycle of corporate blame grafted onto the tale of an abused animal who should have been treated better right from the start. It’s telling that both the whale and the experts questioned on camera appear so weary. They seem to have resigned themselves to this constant apathy on the parts of park owners. The madness isn’t very hard to see, and that might be the most frightening part of all. It’s really no different than how a prison can harden the most marginal of convicts.