Review: Blackfish

Blackfish hits you with a blow of emotion and shock - only to be found in the bleak outlook of killer whales paraded around as marine-park entertainment.

Now that Blackfish has recently been added to Netflix, I’m sure the documentary will be broadening a lot more minds. Three human deaths, the most recent in 2010, involving one killer whale, Tilikum, strikes the viewer with the emotional force of all that’s at stake in an industry so steeped in controversy.

At first glance, the title of the documentary, Blackfish, does not connote the magnanimity or beauty of these creatures. Shots of these creatures in their natural environment on a serene day, overlaid with fast-paced string music, strongly underscore the difference between their lives in the wild and in captivity.

In interviewing former SeaWorld trainers, Blackfish merits in being no more emotive or sensationalist than any other film laying out the bare facts. The director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite shows the trainers, themselves from various places like flatland Kansas, rural Virginia or the big city of New York. All of those interviewed, however, can be summed up as very humbling like everyday people. They aren’t stuffy or pretentious, allowing the viewer to easily connect with them. They admit their ignorance and naivety when they worked at SeaWorld, and don’t work to vilify the corporation.

They admit SeaWorld trainers they were – animal lovers and good swimmers, too – but animal experts they were not. While recalling lost lives or jarring moments in their work, their tears and emotion-filled words convince me of their sincerity.

Blackfish was simultaneously cringe-worthy and suspenseful as a serial-killer thriller. Not because of embellished fact, but the horrendous truth and gravity of both the performing mammals and the at-risk trainers. The film provides an overview of courtroom negation tainted with corporate complicity, where the blame often falls on “trainer error”, rather than animal aggression.

Newspaper clippings and legal cover ups taint the cheery SeaWorld commercials. Taken all together, the home videos and show footage of performances show how awry and terrifying it is to watch seasoned trainers disrupted and threatened by such looming mammals in front of spectators.

In uncovering the traumatic history and treatment of the killer whales, Blackfish is an indictment on an industry that seeks to cover up a frightful truth.

If anything, the archive footage of the orcas speaks for themselves. In those suspenseful moments of real impending danger, Blackfish forefronts the implications of psychosis from years of unnatural segregation and forced, crammed confinement.

What was legitimately heartbreaking to watch was the aftermath of depriving one orca mother from her calf, shipping her off to another park. This moral dilemma provoked my discomfort and made for a trying and educational awakening. Expect to be roused into disbelief.

While a good documentary would ideally have a balanced perspective from both sides, it’s fair to say that SeaWorld declined several times to be interviewed.

With entertainers dropping out left, right and center and animal rights groups gaining momentum, one documentary hasn’t stirred up so much commotion in the one year after its release.

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