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The very real and controversial story of ‘Blackfish’

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by Ryan Downs in Entertainment

It is a cinematic rarity: a remake that actually makes sense. The original It is specifically the sort of movie that deserves a second go, insofar as it made a genuine, [...]

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Back in October, I wrote a review of “Escape from Tomorrow,” an uncomfortable, dark, surreal film about a character going insane while a shadowy entertainment conglomerate tries to cover it up. While that film certainly pushed the envelope with what a director could get away with at a theme park, it did not generate quite the amount of controversy it was aiming for, due in no small part to the fact that it was, at the end of the day, fictional. The same, however, cannot be said for “Blackfish,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s searing, passionate, and disturbing look at the controversial world behind the scenes of water parks like SeaWorld. In the case of that film, the horrors, tragedy, and ultimately the controversy are very, very real.

Blackfish — Wikipedia

On February 24th, 2010, an audience of adults and children alike gathered to watch the “Shamu” show that headlined the daily festivities at SeaWorld in Orlando only to be treated to a shocking and horrific sight as one of the killer whales attacked and killed trainer Dawn Brancheau. Before long, the event was seen as a national tragedy, and Dawn’s name was known worldwide. However, the creature responsible faded into relative obscurity. His name is Tilikum, and he is the largest and one of the most successful whales in captivity. He also has a history of violence (never mind living conditions) that would shock inmates at San Quentin.

The documentary’s primary narrative strength comes from presenting Tilikum as a character who deserves a fair trial. He is a protagonist with a backstory and a personality that’s filled out by interviews with the people who have been affected by him. This includes more than just the trainers who speak of their fond, but off-putting memories of the whale (that Brancheau was the victim came as a surprise to many in the industry; that Tilikum was the culprit did not). The film opens with the guilt-ridden confession of one of the men involved in the capture of the whale when it was a baby, who announces “this is the worst thing I’ve ever done.” Cowperthwaite’s interviews with various experts in the industry take us through Tilikum’s life, from his maturation under neglect and abuse at SeaLand, an unrelated Canadian establishment, to his training at SeaWorld. Along the way, he becomes directly involved in the deaths of at least two other people who entered the tank with him.

But as the film presses onward, it very soon becomes clear who the real culprits are. SeaWorld Entertainment, as can be expected, has fought its hardest to silence the film, as it apparently has decades worth of information regarding whales in captivity, including their dramatically reduced lifespan and apparent heightened aggression. Instead, the company has smeared the film, referring to it as “inaccurate and misleading” but rarely offering alternative, verifiable information. Further accounts of whales being separated from their parents, kept in tanks too small for their size, and some shockingly detailed footage of aggressive behavior on the parts of other whales don’t help SeaWorld’s claim, and the public has taken note. The film made a small, but sizeable, splash (pun not intended, I promise — okay, maybe) at the box office when it was released in the summer. Since then, despite SeaWorld’s best efforts, it has gone on to become one of the year’s most talked about films, even causing bands like Willie Nelson, Heart, and Cheap Trick to cancel gigs at the park.

As a documentary, the film is more than successful in its goal to broadcast Tilikum, and whales like him, as victims of their own captivity. However, this is done with more than just fear. One sequence, in which juvenile whales are rounded up with nets and dragged out of the water as they call out to their parents, the company has been quick to dismiss as an outdated practice; whales today are bred in captivity. What the company does not address, is how even in captivity, families of thinking, feeling creatures are often destroyed as juveniles are sold away. This is shown in the film, during one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent film memory. That, at least, is one thing SeaWorld can’t get away from.

Unfortunately, it’s something those of us living in the Southern California area can’t get away from either. After all, these creatures aren’t dogs and cats, but enormous, powerful sea animals. We may love them, but the film finally asks a question that frankly should have been asked three years ago, and answered long before: is our love of these animals justification for their captivity? “Blackfish” is currently on DVD, if you’d like to make a decision yourself.

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