Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blackfish Takes Us Beneath The Calm Surface of Orca Captivity

  “Blackfish” is a name given to Orcas, popularly known as “killer whales,” by the First People of the Pacific Northwest. They believed these whales to be departed chiefs, and beings possessing great spiritual power. Today, “Blackfish” is the title of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s eye-opening documentary about the life and controversy surrounding Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld’s Orlando park. As a cetacean advocate, I was genuinely elated to hear that Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Unlike so many other feature documentaries, this film also succeeded in securing impressive domestic and international distribution deals, meaning this remarkable, even important documentary will most likely be coming to a theater near you.
 Blackfish opens with the recording of a 9-1-1 call, made on February 24th, 2010, after Tilikum attacked and killed Dawn Brancheau, his trainer. From the springboard of this terrifying, tragic event, we are taken behind the scenes of not only the tight-knit marine mammal trainer community, but into the harsh realities of cetacean capture and the captivity industry. 
 Tilikum was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, when he was approximately three years old. From the moment he was abducted, Tilikum (“Tilly”) experienced immeasurable trauma and hardship. He was first sent to SeaLand Of The Pacific, a shoddy, now-defunct dockside marine park in Victoria, British Columbia. He was subjected to bullying and injury by the female orcas with whom he was kept. Every night, the orcas were lured into a tiny, dark enclosure called “the module.” Every morning, Tilly would come out with new rake marks (teeth marks from the other whales). One day, his trainer, Keltie Byrne, slipped, and her foot entered the water. According to witnesses, it was Tilikum who grabbed her foot and pulled her into the tank. The female orcas joined him in “playing” with, and eventually killing, Keltie.
 After Byrne’s death, SeaWorld purchased Tilikum for their recently-launched captive breeding program, and he was sent to to Orlando to become a breeding bull.  This marked the second time Tilly was ripped from his surroundings and thrown into an artificial, corporate-organized pod, where orcas from different places, languages and even cultures were forced together. 
 Cetaceans are second only to humans in terms of cognitive capacity. Their anatomical brain features denote a profound intelligence, second only to humans. These self-aware, highly social beings have languages and names for each other; create art; use tools and display cultural diversity. For most captive animals, every attempt is made to replicate their natural habitat. Not so in the case of cetaceans, who are primarily acoustic beings and navigate their world by use of sonar. In concrete tanks, reflected sonar signals are disorienting -- the human equivalent of a funhouse mirror maze. Wild cetaceans may travel 100 miles per day or more. Confining a dolphin or whale in a tank such as those at SeaWorld is the spatial equivalent of locking a human into a bathtub-sized cage for life. In light of the above, it becomes readily clear how these animals become psychologically disturbed, and ultimately feature signs of psychosis. Tilikum killed twice more; the last victim being SeaWorld Orlando’s much loved and respected senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau.
 Naturally, SeaWorld -- the largest and most powerful corporation in the multi-billion dollar captive cetacean industry -- declined to participate or contribute in any way to Blackfish. Company statements are conspicuous by their absence throughout. Surprisingly, however, SeaWorld recently issued a statement directed at film critics, attempting to point out errors in this film’s content. This is fair, I suppose, but I felt condescended to by SeaWorld, who seemed to take the attitude that they had the right to tell me how to feel about this film and how to review it. Also, with a little research, I found it easy to debunk much of the rebuttal statement’s rebukes. For example, in their rebuttal, SeaWorld states that whales: “…express dominance in a variety of ways, including using their teeth to “rake” other whales, in the open ocean as well as in parks.” While superficially accurate, this claim ignores the fact, in the wild, whales can – and do – avoid confrontation, and/or escape in any direction. Further, orca tribes typically don’t mix and families are stable. 
 It’s difficult as a reviewer to judge a project with any real objectivity when its subject matter is so close to one’s own heart. If this film has a weakness, it is that  Cowperthwaite was required to lean heavily on talking head interviews due to limited free-use captive orca footage. Any documentary must achieve a comfortable balance between interviews and engaging cinematic b-roll imagery. Given the engrossing nature of this piece, however, this imbalance is easily overlooked. 
 I was impressed that Cowperthwaite spurned sensationalism and declined to use graphic footage of Tilikum’s assault on Miss Brancheau. In doing so, she honored both a personal ethos and the Brancheau family’s wishes, thereby respecting her memory and preserving her dignity. 
 Blackfish is one of those rare cinematic triumphs: a documentary focusing on a fairly obscure subject that will be seen by a large audience, and significantly impact the issue it addresses. Previous documentaries like Zeitgeist, Bowling for Columbine, or even I Want your Money, dealt with issues we must all confront every day -- modern life, guns and taxes. But Blackfish brings to light the little-known, ongoing international tragedy of cetacean captivity. Please make the effort to find this film and give it your full attention. The film, and the cause, deserve it!

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