East End Film Festival Review: Blackfish ★★★★


Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite gives us one of the most eye-opening, fearless and ultimately unsettling features to hit our screens this year, ‘Blackfish’ is a gripping film, documenting the lives of caged killer whales and presenting us with a very persuasive argument against keeping them captive for the sole purpose of our entertainment.

A success at Sundance and subsequently picked up by Magnolia Pictures for wider release, the documentary focuses on Tilikum, a notorious bull orca who has been linked to the deaths of three people to date, from the hunt and his initial capture, ensuing treatment and finally to his current solitary confinement at SeaWorld.

There are humorous moments centering around the jolly, cheesy SeaWorld commercials of the early 90’s, and whether or not this is intentional it still serves to highlight how easy it can be for an audience to be drawn into marketing campaigns that emphasize the fun to be had with these apparently content animals that are eager to amuse, whilst masking the darker issues at play.

Juxtaposed with this Cowperthwaite has put together a moving compilation of interviews, court room extracts, 911 recordings, scientific research, news reports and orca footage all of which put forward a convincing case against their captivity. The interviewees are made up of ex trainers, hunters, witnesses and experts many of whom initially held a blissful ignorance, not just to the effects that living in captivity can have on the whales but also to past failings and potential dangers they were personally facing.

The film delves into many issues; the inhumane treatment of these magnificent creatures, the similarities between past and present tragedies and how little has changed, SeaWorld’s lack of acknowledgment of fault, their apparent desire to downplay events in order to continue maximizing on profit and their blatant disregard for safety by appealing a court order to put a barrier between trainers and whales.

We are provided with documented research into the high level of intelligence, and capability for emotion, that these animals’ posses; and this along with other evidence, including the lifespan of whales in captivity being a fraction of those in the wild, makes for a heartbreaking watch, far removed from how we have seen them depicted on the big screen before whether in the family fantasy ‘Free Willy’ or unsuccessful Michael Anderson jaws imitator ‘Orca’.

The feature evokes a whole collection of emotions; anger, frustration, pity and even shame. Many of us may admit to previously viewing these creatures for our own pleasure but hopefully this will make the audience reassess their outlook on the capture of healthy animals, destroying the idea that an orca’s training has anything to do with their own enjoyment but is a mere Pavlovian response to stimuli.

There have been a few criticisms that the film takes a slanted view of the issue; however there doesn’t seem to be any getting away from the fact that the consequences of captivity, for both humans and animals, far outweigh any positives other than for the profitability of invested corporations. Aside from rescue, population protection or recovery there would not appear to be a sound argument for the confinement of orcas – and by extension any wild animal. It has also been said that our ability to interact with them on a personal level has halted the practice of killing orcas in the wild, however this is quite an outdated view and in a supposedly modern society we should be able to readjust thought processes which tell us that in order for something to be enjoyed or worthwhile we have to relate to it on a human level – that is seeing it perform tricks such as waving or bowing.

With this in mind Blackfish ends on a rather touching note, with past trainers watching the orcas in their natural habitat having developed a respect for them that is not subject to their interaction. From an editorial point of view the film is very well put together, it resonates on an individual level yet avoids coming across as preachy, and holds your attention throughout. My one qualm would be that, at times, the score gives an over dramatized edge – influencing when it isn’t really necessary, but overall the quality, content and direction of the film are all excellent, achieving its goal and beyond.

For those of you who feel strongly about the issue, and more importantly those who have not given it any previous thought, this is a must see. Touching in relation to both this terrific species and those involved in the tragedies encircling them, Blackfish comes highly recommended. See the trailer below.

Blackfish is on general release from July 26th.

Katie Hall is the assistant editor at Critics Associated.