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.