By the time you read this column, I will be winding up my adventures at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., now in its eleventh year.
During a phone call in which we decided on our viewing schedule, my best friend and I revisited some of the documentaries that we’ve seen at previous festivals. One that stayed with both of us was “Blackfish,” which probably has been seen by more people beyond the film festival circuit, most likely due to its subject matter and repeated airing on CNN. It is a film that breaks hearts and angers people. It also changes the way people think – something a good documentary should be able to do.
“Blackfish” is about orcas (killer whales) in captivity. The impetus for the film was the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was attacked in 2010 by a massive, 12,000-pound bull orca named Tilikim.
This documentary serves as an indictment against SeaWorld and similar facilities for their attempts to cash in on human fascination with and affection for marine animals, all at the expense of said animals. The world-famous marine park, in particular, has a shameful history of separating young orcas from their mothers, providing inadequate tanks for the whales and not only failing to use safety precautions for their trainers, but attempting to conceal previous accidents and attacks.
“Blackfish” features excellent interviews with whale experts and remorseful former SeaWorld trainers. SeaWorld itself refused to participate in the documentary.
To understand what might have led to Brancheau’s death, one needs to look back at decades of poor decision-making and morally questionable practices on the part of SeaWorld and other marine parks.
With great detail, “Blackfish” traces Tilikum’s history, beginning with his capture in the open ocean at a young age. He was sold to Sealand, a marine park in Canada, and eventually SeaWorld. Prior to Brancheau’s death, Tilikum had killed two people and repeatedly exhibited disturbing behavior, such as lunging at trainers.
However, the film hints that Tilikum is a product of his environment and that, as a result, Brancheau’s death was almost inevitable. As a young whale, he’d been trained using punishments such as withholding food. He’d also been confined in a small area with other whales who would attack him, before he was eventually moved into isolation.
One expert asserts that such treatment led to a psychosis – not impossible, considering studies of orca brains indicate that they experience emotions and social bonding that might be more complex than other mammals, including humans.
“There’s something wrong with Tilikum,” one of the trainers says. “You understand that he’s killing not to be a savage. … He’s killing because he’s frustrated. He’s got aggravations and he has no outlet for them.”
To understand this frustration, one must recognize the differences between life in captivity and in their natural habitat for a whale. Despite orcas’ power, to this day there is no record of an orca doing any harm to a human being in the wild. In the wild, they live in pods that are their family, their community, and have life spans similar to humans. Adult offspring never leave their mothers. And there is every indication that whales use language distinctive to their pod.
In contrast, whales in captivity are separated from their young and forced to live in confined conditions with whales from other parts of the world, with different genes and a different language. There is more violence, aggression and killing among whales in captivity than in the wild. Life spans are also significantly shorter – anywhere from 10 to 35 years.
I urge you to watch “Blackfish.” But be forewarned: The film contains several disturbing sequences. From the opening in which chilling 911 phone calls are played over beautiful, graceful images of a trainer and a whale in the water together, to whale captures in the ocean, to actual attacks on trainers, it’s not viewing for everyone.
“Blackfish” will leave you heartbroken and furious, both for the whales and the trainers, and will linger in your mind. It is a film about animal rights, but it’s not a strident one. It’s just as much about corporate responsibility and personal ethics.
And what has happened to Tilikum? He now lives alone in a tank and is brought out only to perform at SeaWorld shows. He is essentially a stud whale, and it is estimated that 54 percent of SeaWorld’s orcas carry his genes. It’s not a great life, and a whale expert interviewed for “Blackfish” says it best.
“I feel sad for Tilikum. A regal thing like him, swimming around a tank …”
Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.