Monday, 18 November 2013


Madman Films

Now Showing

The title for this documentary comes from the name once given to orcas by the Native Americans. We, of course, know them by their less poetic misnomer killer whales, which is ironic given that there is no report of an orca having ever killed a human. Not in the wild anyway.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish, a powerful mix of video footage and talking head interviews, examines the life of one orca, Tilikum, who over 20 years in captivity lashed out at and, yes, killed his human trainers.

Fished from the ocean when just a calf, the male orca, Tilikum, was first taken to a rundown marine park in Canada where the ocean was replaced with what equated to little more than slightly larger backyard swimming pool, and his pod -- which marine biologists describe as very social structures with their own language, and creatures with great emotional intelligence -- were replaced with human trainers.

Following a fatal attack on one trainer, Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld in Florida, where his past violent behaviour was not disclosed to his new trainers, and he was both made to perform for the paying public whilst also producing sperm for the park's very lucrative breeding program.

Interviews with former SeaWorld trainers reveal that Tilikum's violent outbursts didn't end with his relocation to a larger enclosure nor did they stop at what the park's legal team would deny were acts of aggression: more trainers would feel the brunt of Tilikum's displeasure -- described by some marine experts as a form of psychosis -- and, yes, two more people (one trainer, one civilian) would die.

Not that SeaWorld management seemed to care. Trainer error was always cited as the reason for any mishap and the park continued to supply marine parks around the world with both the sperm of the aggressive whale, and whales produced by said seed. Naturally, SeaWorld took no responsibility when a marine park in the Canary Islands also suffered a trainer death.

With Blackfish, Cowperthwaite isn't pulling her punches; very much placing the blame, and rightly so, at the feet of SeaWorld (management were repeatedly asked to appear in the documentary and repeatedly refused) and not Tilikum. "If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don't you think you'd get a little psychotic?" asks one of the talking heads by way of explaining the whale's behaviour.

Much like 2009's Oscar winning doco, The Cove -- about Japanese fishermen's annual slaughter of the local dolphin population -- Blackfish seeks to inform, alarm, anger and, hopefully, radicalise the viewer. And it should. If the ethics of keeping animals in captivity doesn't move you, the video footage of Tilikum's attacks on his trainers will.

I've never been to a marine park; I now have no intention of ever doing so. If you're thinking about taking the family to Sea World this weekend, I'd suggest you take them to see Blackfish instead. They won't be entertained -- they may not even speak to you afterwards they'll be so shaken -- but in time they'll thank you. Here's hoping one day Tilikum and the rest of his species can too.

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