halt and catch fire, series premiere
well, i threw him back on a thursday

by request: blackfish (gabriela cowperthwaite, 2013)

(Requested by Neal.)

Blackfish is an exposé. It tells us things we might not know, where if we knew them, we might be upset. Cowperthwaite assumes we agree that mistreating killer whales is a bad thing. What she shows us is how the seemingly benign use of the whales in theme parks is in fact not benign at all, that the parks mistreat the whales. Thus, in exposing the parks, Cowperthwaite expects us to connect the dots and conclude that theme parks like SeaWorld are a bad thing.

It’s a very effective movie. Consider the central event around which the film’s theme is organized: a killer whale eats a human being. The film starts with 911 audio, and ends with the killing (the actual moments are not shown). What makes Blackfish so effective is that we feel badly for the whale. By the time Tilikum kills trainer Dawn Brancheau, we have been shown enough about his treatment, and the treatment of the whales in general, to believe that Tilikum’s actions, if not justified, are at least understandable. The enemy isn’t the whale, it’s SeaWorld.

And the archival footage of Brancheau and her fellow trainers bear this out, even though they were employees of Sea World. The trainers love the whales … one in particular notes that the only reason he stayed on the job is because he didn’t know who would care for the whale if he was gone. And it appears the whales love the trainers. But the animals can only take so much mistreatment, not to mention Tilikum has an established record of occasional acts against humans.

So if you are looking for someone or something to blame, Blackfish provides it.

And yet … there’s something else going on that disturbs me in a way I can’t quite figure out. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Tilikum has his own Wikipedia page. This reflects the fact that for a long time, Tilikum was a SeaWorld star. Heck, he’s pretty much the star of Blackfish. And the way Cowperthwaite uses Dr. Lori Marino is interesting. Marino is a neuroscientist who has done extensive work on marine mammals. She may not know what is in the mind of a whale, but she knows there’s a whole lot more going on in there than we might believe. Marino, and other experts, argue that Tilikum’s treatment in various theme parks contributed to his violent outbursts. Neal, who recommended the film to me, said that the film moves him, that Tilikum resonates for him, and I understand that. Tilikum is presented as a misunderstood being, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Of course his actions are not his fault; of course SeaWorld is to blame for mistreating him. His story makes a great frame for what Cowperthwaite wants to get across.

So Tilikum has a Wikipedia page. You know who doesn’t have a Wikipedia page? Dawn Brancheau. If you type her name into the search box, you are directed to a segment of … the Tilikum page. Brancheau is noteworthy because Tilikum ate her.

I’m not being quite fair, here. Blackfish does a good job of showing us the actual people behind the title of “trainer”. These people aren’t just window dressing. Brancheau misses out on this, though, because she’s not around to be interviewed. The footage of her at work is good … she has real charisma. And her co-workers speak highly of her. But because the theme of Blackfish is animal mistreatment, shown through the tale of a misunderstood killer whale, Brancheau becomes almost a prop in the story. Just as Wikipedia treats her as an addendum to the story of Tilikum, so Blackfish uses her to show just what happens when you mistreat a killer whale.

I’m not trying to dismiss the points made in the film, or to deny the emotional reaction we have when watching. But in an odd way, Dawn Brancheau disappears behind Tilikum’s story.

8/10. For a different approach to documentary, try Frederick Wiseman’s Primate.

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