For as long as many of us can remember, blockbusters have provided a surefire way to beat the summer heat.
In the cool dark of a multiplex, we confront the unspeakable and accomplish the impossible and in these moments we are given brief respite from the utter ordinariness of our lives.
But what if popular films offered more than escapism?
This summer, audiences will have the opportunity to see a film that contains everything anyone could want from a blockbuster: a psychologically tortured protagonist, institutional cover-ups and scenes of majestic beauty. This film, however, is a documentary and it leaves its audience with difficult questions that will linger long after the summer fades.
Blackfish opens with a 911 call from SeaWorld to report an attack on trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound killer whale and the park’s star attraction. The attack occurred shortly after a “Dine With Shamu” show in February, 2010. Witnesses disagree on what exactly happened:
Did Brancheau’s ponytail somehow get caught in Tilikum’s teeth?
Did he intentionally bite her arm?
Regardless of how the attack began, the autopsy report remains indisputable: Brancheau died of blunt force trauma to the head, neck and torso; her left elbow was dislocated and she suffered fractures to her lower jaw, ribs and vertebrae. For much of the film’s 83 minutes, Blackfish examines, but does not ultimately answer how such a tragedy could have occurred and who is to blame.
The film briefly addresses the idea that Brancheau might have somehow contributed to her own death (SeaWorld’s initial contention), but this is quickly dismissed. At the time of her death, Brancheau was a seasoned trainer with 14 years of experience, and no one interviewed for the film could find fault with her actions.
The film takes a more critical look at SeaWorld.
Former trainers, Samantha Berg, John Hargrove and several others reveal that SeaWorld requires little to no experience or knowledge of its trainees, nor are they informed of the risks (such as a whale’s history of aggression).
Not surprisingly, the job draws athletic individuals who love animals. Wide-eyed at first, the trainers want to believe that SeaWorld has the animals’ best interests at heart—even when that contradicts their own observations.
The former trainers relate witnessing the mistreatment of the animals first hand: punishment-based training, breaking up of family groups and “bullying” among whales forced into confined quarters. They explain how many remain on the job for fear of what might happen were they to abandon their beloved animals.
Hearing former employees criticize SeaWorld pales, however, in comparison to the extensive film and video footage that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has managed to collect.
She includes archival footage of a 1970 whale hunt where baby orcas were separated from their families and netted, video clips showing previous attacks by Tilikum and—what is perhaps the film’s most excruciating moment—the sound of a mother whale screaming as her calf is taken from her and sent to another facility.
Such scenes spotlight the orca’s vast intelligence and emotional complexity. They also introduce the possibility that captivity turned Tilikum into an unpredictable killing machine (to date he has killed three people).
Yet Blackfish refrains from placing full blame on SeaWorld and Sealand of the Pacific (Tilikum’s former home, where he was involved in the death of trainer Keltie Byrne). Instead the film uses a technique familiar to viewers of television crime shows like Criminal Minds or CSI to ask: is nature or nurture to blame for Tilikum’s violence?
By juxtaposing Tilikum’s history against interviews with scientists and former trainers, Blackfish “profiles” the whale. We learn, for instance, that at Sealand of the Pacific, Tilikum was routinely “bullied” by two female orcas. The amount of space afforded whales at such facilities also appears woefully inadequate. As a recent ad for the film puts it, “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?”
If this is true—if captivity lies at the heart of Tilikum’s violent behavior—then parks like SeaWorld are breeding grounds for tragedy.
Equally disturbing is the idea that Tilikum might just be the “bad boy” of killer whales. In the wake of Brancheau’s death, SeaWorld was charged by OHSA with “willful” safety violation, slapped with a $75,000 fine and forced to end water work performances (SeaWorld subsequently sued OSHA and has been recently fined an additional $38,500).
As a result, Tilikum no longer performs as he has in the past, but he is still worth his weight in gold as a stud: every whale bred at SeaWorld can trace its paternity to Tilikum. This amounts to over 15 orcas (and their offspring) that could be carrying a predisposition towards violence.
Nature or nurture?
The experts featured in Blackfish suggest that we are only just beginning to understand how orcas think and feel. The question remains unanswered, but the implications in Tilikum’s case look grim, regardless. In this way, the film raises the question underlying SeaWorld’s $2 billion dollar a year profit: Is it ethical to exploit animals for our own entertainment? Blackfish never advocates a complete ban on animal entertainment or for the release of captive marine mammals. Yet, I doubt that anyone seeing this film will want to set foot near SeaWorld ever again.
But what about aquariums and zoos that inspire and educate future generations or help preserve endangered species? Should school-aged children never experience the awe of seeing a shark or a lion up close?
This issue lies beyond the parameters of Blackfish, but it is something audiences will undoubtedly ponder. By inviting us to consider our responsibility to our fellow creatures, Blackfish not only forces us to question the ethics of our entertainment, it also provides a noteworthy example of what we, as a species, ought to demand:
Entertainment that also enlightens—I give it a full fluke up.
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Assistant Ed: Steph Richard/Ed: Bryonie Wise