Blackfish (2013)

Review first published by Film4.

Synopsis: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary casts a wide net in determining why a captive orca killed an experienced trainer at SeaWorld Orlando.

Review: If Michael Anderson’s Jaws-riffing Orca (1977) paints killer whales as implacable underwater avengers, while Marine Mammal Parks would prefer us to see orcas as cuddly clowns that just love performing for (and with) humans in theatre-like pools, then Blackfish, the second feature documentary by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (City LAX: An Urban Lacrosse Story), punctures both these myths – even if it does focus on a homicidal whale at SeaWorld Orlando. The result is a confronting film of contrasts, casting light on orcas both in their natural state, and in the altogether more unnatural environment of captivity.

“To this day,” observes cetacean researcher Howard Garrett, “there’s no record of an orca ever doing any harm to any human – in the wild.” Yet since being captured and separated from his family at two years old, penned in with some very aggressive cellmates, severely restricted in his movements and subjected to a regime of punishment and reward by a succession of caring but misguided trainers, Tilikum has been responsible for three human deaths – all of which SeaWorld administrators, desperate not to lose either their most valuable stud whale or their paying customers, have endeavoured to blame on everyone and everything but their own unethical culture.

Rippling out from the horrific death of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, Blackfish sets interviews with a rueful hunter, former trainers, whale experts and eyewitnesses against news items, court transcripts, autopsy reports, and of course spectacular – if often depressing – footage of the orcas themselves. It all adds up to a sympathetic profile of a serial killer’s traumatic history, and a compelling picture of humanity’s great inhumanity towards these sensitive, highly socialised beasts – and like any good activist piece, it might just make viewers think twice before taking the family to a whale show.

In A Nutshell: Despite profiling a (serial) killer whale, Blackfish puts the whole culture of Marine Mammal Parks on trial.

Anton Bitel