It’s good to see that documentaries are slowly becoming a recognizable force in the world of cinema. Each year an assortment of insightful and engaging docs that inform and challenge are made by visionary and passionate filmmakers. This year one of the films getting a lot is of press is “Blackfish”. This documentary focuses on Tilikum, a 12,000 pound orca who performs at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. It chronicles the events surrounding Tilikum, including his original capture in 1983, his life in captivity, and his involvement in the deaths of two trainers and a SeaWorld guest.
Let me start with the film’s strength. This is a brilliantly made documentary in terms of its structure and pacing. Director and co-writer Gabriela Cowperthwaite has an unquestionable knack for presentation. With practically no spoken narration, the film seamlessly moves from one interview bite to another mixing in home video footage, archived news reports, and courtroom testimonies. There is never a lull and I found myself glued to the screen even when some of what I was seeing wasn’t that convincing. It has a riveting cinematic flare to it that definitely hits on the emotional level. And clearly emotions were a central target that “Blackfish” had in mind.
For me, good documentaries enlighten, challenge, inform, and expose. I like it when they take on a tough subject with passion and conviction. But I also appreciate balance, not in terms of equal time for a counterpoint, but in fact telling and representation. That’s a balance that I think is missing here. “Blackfish” is after all an advocacy film. It has a clear objective in mind and there is nothing wrong with that. But there reached a point where I felt chunks of information were being left out and the film was going for a more emotionally manipulative approach. I’m certainly not saying there aren’t moments that truly cut to the heart, but “Blackfish” wants the audience thinking solely with the heart and judging by many of the responses that seems to have worked.
Those interviewed for the doc are mainly a handful of ex-SeaWorld trainers, an OSHA representative, and an orca expert. It’s a single-minded group who offer some thought-provoking insight but also have a similar objective – spotlight the evils of orca captivity and put the crosshairs on SeaWorld. I thought the film’s case was the strongest when it was explaining facts about orcas in their natural habitats. It is also hard not to be effected when we see how some of these early parks operated. And I believe the doc raises some good questions about SeaWorld’s safety protocols.
But the film falls short when it tries to land its bigger punches. For example the main argument of “Blackfish” is that Tilikum killed three people as a direct result of being held in captivity. Yet Tilikum’s culpability in two of the deaths is sketchy. The first death also involved two aggressive female orcas and the second death involved a man who hid in the park and climbed into the tank with Tilikum after hours. Cowperthwaite briefly touches on these details but then uses the deaths to further a point of view. There is also the goal of making SeaWord out to be nothing more than an evil money-grubbing corporation. While SeaWorld should answer some of the film’s piercing questions, this is a self-serving characterization that overlooks some key facts about the establishment.
“Blackfish” makes a few other missteps. It often gives definitive statements about ambiguous events and it does try to frame opinions as facts. But it also gave me a greater appreciation for these incredible animals and it challenged my past apathy towards their plight. “Blackfish” does ask some powerful questions and it does so through a near perfect presentation. I only wish it was as interested in appealing to the audience’s examination as it is to the their emotions. That type of manipulation just wasn’t needed. Then again, it seems to be a tactic that has really worked so far.
I don’t think a documentary always needs to be objective and personally had no issues with some of the choices. The documentary has had a big impact on Sea World as several artists have cancelled performances there and recently the company even took out advertising to defend itself.
Oh I agree. As I said there’s nothing wrong with having a position and making a statement. But misrepresenting and conveniently leaving out important facts shoots its credibility on certain points.
As for the rock bands canceling, that speaks to one of my gripes. The doc wants people thinking on a purely emotional level. Nothing wrong with bringing the audiences emotions into it. But this film is a bit manipulative and it has worked. Bands are canceling and some of the statements by critics show that in my opinion.
Great comments! Appreciate the discussion.
Sterling review Keith, and one of the most open and frank reviews I’ve read. You’re smack-dab on the money about the emotional manipulation and the tendency Cowperthwaite has to steer conveniently hard-hitting interview responses into the main narrative. Although it’s hard for one to disagree with the idea that these whales are mistreated poorly. This doc made me very sad, and while I scored it a little higher than you, I see your argument entirely.
Thanks for the kind words. I just think there is enough to enlighten us with and expose without using some of the tactics. I understand it’s an activist film but I still want my emotions to flow naturally and not be manipulated. And that’s the frustrating thing. At times I felt the material was emotional and moving. But often times not so much.
Pretty spot on here Keith. It’s a very powerful documentary and I don’t think it can be argued that keeping killer whales in captivity in this way is acceptable, but it would have been nice to hear from those in defence of SeaWorld and as such it does feel a little one-sided.
I know SeaWorld declined to be interviewed (at least it briefly states that at the end of the film). They have certainly been vocal sense though. I think the movies brings attention to certain things which I really appreciated. But it also paints its own picture of certain events mainly to emotionally (not necessarily intellectually) draw people to its side. It has been effective. For example look at the movie description caption on IMDB. It starts with a point of view that the film really pushes but that isn’t as clear as people think.
Whales aren’t fish, silly.
SEE!?!? This is a very misleading documentary!!!!!
Good review. I largely agree. Blackfish is emotionally powerful and does have a few minor intellectual flaws.
With said, I will say I think Cowperthwaite attempts to be somewhat balanced, at least as much as she can be given SeaWorld’s refusal to participate. Does she present counter-arguments in as much detail as she might have? No. But then some issues don’t lend themselves to dual arguments. Sometimes one of the sides is just wrong.
I also want to comment on your final point. You’re right, of course, that Tilikum’s culpability for two of the deaths is questionable. I would contend, however, that that is largely beside the point. Whether or not we can blame Tilikum, the bottom line is thus: two people are dead, and neither would be if we didn’t hold orcas in captivity for the entertainment of tourists.
As an extension of that point, Tilikum is not Cowperthwaite’s only lens here. He serves a narrative purpose of giving Blackfish a focal point, but the director discusses other attacks and injuries, inflicted by other captive whales across the globe, precisely because she wants us to understand the scope of the problem. She’s certainly not blaming Tilikum; nor is she isolating that single animal as problematic. She’s arguing that the problem is bigger than him. Perhaps the other two female whales were involved in one of the deaths. But if they were . . . that only further supports Cowperthwaite’s argument. Holding these intelligent animals captive leads to unnecessary human death and/or injury. And the problem is much bigger than a single animal.
Thanks or your comments my friend. Always appreciate them.
As to your question. I think the questions marks surrounding the deaths are very significant. In the first death two VERY aggressive females were directly involved and very well may have done the killing. In the second death some nut hid out and then jumped in the tank after hours with no one present. Who knows what this guy did in there? Regardless he wasn’t trained or familiar to Tilikum.
The main point of the film’s argument is that Tilikum’s aggression is a direct result of his captivity. Considering the unanswered questions surrounding two of the death (which the film doesn’t touch), I’m not certain Blackfish makes a good case. That was my only point there.
I understand your point. I just think it misses the main purpose of the movie, which is to argue that humans wouldn’t be dying or getting hurt if these whales weren’t in captivity. No whales in captivity means neither the females nor Tilikum have a chance to kill someone. It also means the straggler isn’t allowed to hop the fence and get in the water with Tilikum, which correspondingly means he doesn’t have a chance to get himself dead.
No whales in captivity means no injury, whether by fault of Tilikum, other orcas or idiotic people. The deaths you point to support that thesis, which means they are still effective inclusions to this film.
I get what you’re saying but I think the film has a broader objective than you do. I think simply saying that if orcas weren’t in captivity these people wouldn’t be dead is an obvious statement. There doesn’t need to be a documentary about that.
I think the documentary has a stronger objective. For example, it goes to great lengths to show the cruel conditions especially from the early parks. It also accuses SeaWorld of a variety of heinous offenses that go beyond simple captivity. Now some of these accusations have a lot of bite. Others were fairly toothless IMO.
I do agree there are more objectives than just arguing against orca captivity, by the way. I’m just saying that is the prime purpose. 😉
Bottom line is we both think this an effective documentary with some intellectual gaps. Which means we have more agreement than disagreement. 😉
Absolutely! And I thought it had a flawless structure. It moved so fluidly and I was hooked throughout. Never bored.
Really good review, Keith. I also hope to see some objectivity in documentaries, however I think this is probably an unrealistic expectation. Anyone seeking to make a documentary on a given topic is probably doing so because they hold a strong view on one side or the other. There are some real tough moments to watch, such as the orca pulling the trainer to the bottom over and over again. I think this is a very valuable documentary, although quite one-sided. It might not be the best of the year, but it’s probably the most well-known.
Thanks for the comments. I don’t think objectivity is really what I expect or even specifically want. I love passion and I love strong opinions in documentaries. I just think the manipulative approach it sometimes takes and leaving out certain key factors and considerations takes away from the message a bit. It came across as a tactic to strike such a strong emotional chord that people wouldn’t go beyond their feelings.
Good review Keith. This is some heart-breaking stuff that’s only made worse by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be an end to all of this cruelty. Maybe in the next twenty, some-odd years there will be, but as for right now, nobody knows.
Thanks man. It definitely has its moments. There were times where it really struck a chord. Unfortunately there were other times when its motives and tactics were a bit too obvious. Still, it’s a very good watch.
Somebody mentioned this film on my top ten, said it should have been included. Not my type of film though 😀
It has some really strong moments. But it’s not quite Top 10 material for me.
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