Blackfish

November 23, 2013
BLACKFISH
The true story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity.
BLACKFISH The true story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity.

Blackfish is the kind of documentary that picks up on an issue that will rarely have entered the consciousness of most people, and makes it a matter of urgency. The starting point is the death of Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer of Orcas (or “killer whales”) at SeaWorld, Florida. The agent of destruction was Tilikum, a 5,440 kg. Orca with a history of violent acts.

There are two major lines of attack in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s investigation of this event. Firstly, there is the barbarous treatment to which these intelligent mammals are subjected in captivity – treatment which leads to early death, poor health, and possible psychosis. Secondly, there is the secretive attitude of the SeaWorld management, who failed to inform their own staff that Tilikum had already mauled a trainer to death in another marine park. Even when Brancheau was killed, they tried to pass off the incident as due to a trainer’s error.

Most of the talking heads in this film are former trainers at SeaWorld, who are now the most vehement opponents of keeping Orcas in captivity. The case is backed up by scientists who talk about the social habits and emotional life of the Orca, which is on a par with human beings.

The reason why SeaWorld persists in this activity, and refuses to talk about it to camera, is fairly simple: the marine park is a multi-million dollar business and tourist attraction. The Orcas, and indeed the trainers, are simply cogs in the machine. If the way we treat animals is some indication of our progress as a civilisation, it seems there are still many areas in which human decency is merely an impediment to making a profit.

Blackfish
USA, rated M
83 mins
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite; written by Gabriela Cowperthwaite & Eli B. Despres

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23 November, 2013.