Blackfish (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner25/07/2013

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 83 mins

Superbly directed, powerfully emotional documentary that presents a convincing case against keeping orca whales in captivity and is liable to induce righteous anger at the behaviour of a certain marine park.

What's it all about?
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish is a documentary that centres on the story of Tilikum, a performing orca whale that has so far been responsible for three deaths in marine parks over the last 22 years. Captured in the Pacific and separated from his family, Tilikum was initially held in a tiny Vancouver aquarium, where he was abused by both his human trainers and two female orca whales that shared the same space; he subsequently killed a young trainer and was sold to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where the corporation neglected to inform Tilikum's new trainers of his murderous past.

Since being sold to SeaWorld, Tilikum has gone on to kill two more people (a homeless man and a professional, highly safety-conscious trainer) and has injured several others. However, SeaWorld blamed the various violent incidents on human error and have so far refused to retire Tilikum – not only does he still perform, but his value as a breeding whale is such that his sperm is reputedly responsible for over half the whales currently at SeaWorld.

The Good
Cowperthwaite tells Tilikum's story using a combination of talking head interviews with former trainers, workers from various marine parks, animal behaviourists and a former whale hunter, interspersed with news footage and home video of whale-on-human attacks taken by both spectators and SeaWorld employees (including a horrific sequence where Tilikum repeatedly drags a trainer to the bottom of a pool). What comes through most clearly is a profound sense of disillusionment amongst the former trainers; everyone who's interviewed got into the job through a love of animals, but each of them has since arrived at the conclusion that it's wrong to keep orcas in captivity.

Like many of the best crusading documentaries, Blackfish is likely to induce righteous anger at the behaviour of SeaWorld – tellingly, they refused to be interviewed for the film. Cowperthwaite certainly mounts a damning case against them, noting that even after being court-ordered to ensure there are safety barriers between trainers and whales, they are appealing the decision.

The Great
The film also points to strong evidence that orcas are highly emotional creatures and it's hard not to agree with the conclusion that Tilikum behaves the way he does as a result of the abuse and trauma he has suffered (there are no reported incidences of orcas attacking humans in the wild). In addition, Cowperthwaite includes some devastating sequences, most notably some footage from 1970 of a mass netting of orcas in Puget Sound, complete with deeply upsetting screaming sounds from the whales as they are separated from their young; this is interspersed with an interview with a still clearly traumatised former whale hunter, describing the event as the worst thing he has ever experienced.

Worth seeing?
Blackfish is a powerful and frequently deeply disturbing documentary that demands to be seen. It would also play extremely well alongside 2009's similarly excellent The Cove. Highly recommended.

Film Trailer

Blackfish (15)
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Content updated: 19/07/2018 07:01

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