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MIFF Film Review: Blackfish

Tuesday 6 August 2013

MIFF Film Review: Blackfish

The film Free Willy cemented in many nineties children’s minds that the captivity of orca whales was inhumane and downright wrong, at the same time igniting an obsession and fascination with these creatures. Years later, the cruel treatment of these sentient and highly intelligent mammals still exists in sea parks around the world. Feeling like a follow up to the children’s classic, Blackfish is modern, informative and adapted to the now adult nineties child and people of all ages. This is a must-see, emotional documentary that really should not be missed.

The film tells the story of Tilikum (a dangerous orca whale) and his past in the lead-up to the tragic death of a trainer. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite doesn’t swallow the ‘trainer error’ excuses, and delves into the controversy that surrounds capturing these wild beasts and training them for entertainment. This film also reveals shocking information about the skills and practices of these trainers and unveils never-before-seen footage in this quest for truth: why no orca has killed a human in the wild, yet deaths and injuries occur frequently in captivity.

Through a series of in-depth and fascinating interviews, Cowperthwaite explores the horrific reality of captive sea animals to delight audiences, and how they are passed around like pawns for profit by park owners. Her investigative interviews reveal the heart breaking and sickly attitudes of ex-trainers and sea park employees, along with the chilling scientific facts and findings from professionals and scientists in the field. When watching Blackfish you can’t help but be hooked form the very beginning, as the mesmerising and appalling footage and interviews unfold to expose the grizzly truth. Food deprivation, confinement, isolation, frustration and boredom, all clearly induce psychosis in the animals and demonstrate the consequences that apply to any perceptive and emotional mammal. 

Cowperthwaite has beautifully woven a story of a corrupt and cruel industry with the love and fascination many have with orca whales through the use of contemporary and archive footage, including that which is never seen… the deaths. Whilst watching the film there is an unsettling urge to want to ‘see what happens’ in the attacks which forces self-evaluation in conjunction with digesting the truth about a world most audiences are oblivious to and unaware of.

As a whole there are so many standout moments and revelations, however, the realisation in hindsight from many ex-trainers as to the way they were brainwashed, misinformed and put in danger is shocking. These once ‘experts’ reveal the harrowing abuse, mistreatment and punishment-based training subjected to the whales as well as the attacks between animals, cover ups from the company and lack of information that now leave them disillusioned. 

The music perfectly complements the film, even if it is a little obvious in parts and the editing is effective in driving and developing the story. What really holds the film together is the story of Tilikum, and his role in the tragic death of by-the-book trainer: Dawn Brancheau. The constant driving force behind the film is to understand why the attack happened, especially after a number of deaths and injuries that Tilikum caused before he turned on Dawn. This climax of Dawn’s story however, is reached just a few minutes late, as the majority of footage preceding the attack is so gripping, eye opening and revealing. The result sees the end trail off quickly, leaving a slightly unsatisfied feeling - which could be due to the gravity of the subject.

In the end, the cycle of catching and separating orca calves from their mothers in the wild to grow up in tiny tanks, to produce more calves, to then be separated from their offspring (all for profit) really is a stain on our conscience and morals. This film so wonderfully presents the harsh facts whilst providing a sense of empowerment to audiences against the profitable sea park industry that endangers lives of people and traumatises intelligent animals.

Blackfish is a fascinating and engrossing film that should be seen by audiences worldwide. 


- Chelsea Denny