Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Premise: A documentary about Tilikum, the killer whale held by SeaWorld, which is believed to be responsible for the deaths of multiple animal trainers.
What Works: The job of a narrative movie, whether it is a feature film or a documentary, is to tell a compelling story and Blackfish does that. The story of Blackfish is so absorbing because it works in multiple dimensions at once. This is first and foremost a movie about animal welfare. As depicted in the film, killer whales are being housed in facilities that are too small and they are being treated with little regard for the mental and physical wellbeing of the animals. The filmmakers argue that the mistreatment of the whales has driven some of them to become violent, which resulted in the deaths of park personnel. Cruelty to animals, especially creatures that are beloved like cats, dogs, and whales, immediately elicits a pathos appeal and the filmmakers use it appropriately here. They don’t overplay the emotional aspect of their argument but it is made effectively and enhances their ethical and logical arguments. One of the extraordinary things that the filmmakers of Blackfish have included is archival footage, some of it from the aquariums in which tourists and park officials documented whales attacking their trainers and each other. But among the filmmakers’ major scoops is the inclusion of footage of Tilikum and other whales being captured from the open sea. This footage and the corresponding interviews are among the most damning moments in the film, not in the least because the actions documented were illegal and are subsequently linked to SeaWorld, a major American corporation and cultural institution. This leads to the other dimension of Blackfish; it is a story about corporate malfeasance. A lot of the film’s argument is made by former SeaWorld trainers who testify to the mistreatment of the animals and the patterns of violence and accuse SeaWorld of deliberately misinforming the public and their own employees. As tough as the animal mistreatment may be, it is the professional impropriety that sticks to SeaWorld and will probably do the most damage to its reputation.
What Doesn’t: Blackfish leaves a few assumptions unquestioned regarding whales, captivity, and animal welfare in general. The filmmakers do not interrogate the popular belief that whales are as intelligent as primates; this belief is widespread but exactly how intelligent and self-aware whales may be is still a matter of scientific debate. That leads to a philosophical matter of whether it is moral or ethical to use killer whales and other animals for entertainment purposes. Blackfish convincingly makes the case that the conditions in which killer whales are kept are inadequate and inhumane but whether or not keeping them in captivity is wrong in principle is not fully addressed by the filmmakers. For that matter, the filmmakers skip over some of the broader arguments regarding whether or not we should concern ourselves with the welfare of animals at all. To be fair, these are academic points which are beyond the more immediate scope of Blackfish, but these flanks in the film’s argument remain.
DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, and interviews.
Bottom Line: Blackfish is an impactful documentary because it is so effectively takes a major cultural image—dolphins performing at amusement parks—and casts a shadow over it. The movie will speak to those who are already opposed to keeping killer whales in captivity but it will also play for the broader audience and raise questions about the ethics of incarcerating large wild animals.
Episode: #471 (December 29, 2013)