There’s something fishy going on in Orlando. You may recall the term Killer Whale from the fiction film Orca (Michael Anderson ) which is not a Jaws (1975) rip off at all. ‘Killer whale’ may be the commonly known term for Orca but in Blackfish we learn that there is far more to these amazing creatures than the soft plush toys and splashy acrobatic showcases as defined by the animals who perform in captivity. In many ways, one of the film’s most interesting aspects lies with uncovering the relationship these whales had with those who dealt with them daily (the trainers) and their life in the wild.
Blackfish is a documentary about the capture, incarceration, training and showcasing of orca for the purposes of entertainment at sea world shows. The premise is to demonstrate the shocking consequences when these hugely intelligent, highly social species decide that they have had enough of being kept in small tanks and made to perform for audiences. Quite simply, they can kill. But why?
Orca are major public attractions but they are also wild animals. The film follows the story of Tilikum, a male orca, captured in the 1980s, who has performed in a number of sea world theme parks. In 2010 he attacked and killed one of his SeaWorld trainers. And apparently this wasn’t the first time. Through interviews with former SeaWorld trainers and footage that is occasionally deeply disturbing but intrinsic to understanding these creatures, we learn about the events leading up to Tilikum becoming a killer.
Blackfish takes a standard documentary format, using talking heads and archive footage to construct its story. It is highly emotive on a number of levels – from the passion of the former trainers who genuinely loved their jobs performing and interacting with the whales, to the portrayal of the mass orca hunts (the mothers would herd their offspring to safe waters, only to find that the hunting group could track them by helicopter and would trap the group in nets, taking the young away), to the shocking images of these trained creatures attacking humans. When discussing the relative merits of keeping orca in captivity and sending them to theme parks all over the world, the words spoken by a professional hunter who felt that he was ‘kidnapping a little kid from his mother,’ and that it was ‘the worst thing I have ever done,’ speaks volumes. We are also given factual information about how orca live in the wild, how social they are, and this serves to emphasise how unnatural their lives in captivity actually are. It openly criticises Sea World’s corporate policies. But this is the point of Blackfish. It is moving and occasionally thought-provoking, but thoroughly polemic.
In the film’s closing credits Blackfish is open in declaring that Seaworld did not wish to be associated with or interviewed for the documentary. This naturally results a less balanced approach but it does not detract from the fact that the filmmakers have produced a work that is both heart-rending and shocking. Perhaps SeaWorld should have agreed to have their input during filming. Perhaps not. Who can tell? Regardless, Blackfish is a fascinating and powerful film.