In the new documentary “Blackfish,” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite finds compelling, disturbing subject matter at the intersection of animal and human rights concerns.
In 2010, experienced SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed during a performance by a six-ton killer whale with a history of violence named Tilikum. From this incident and the ensuing lawsuit against SeaWorld by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for endangering trainers, the filmmaker delves into a history of orca-on-human aggression going back almost 40 years.
In interviews, whale experts and a number of Brancheau’s former peers make a persuasive argument that the continued existence of killer-whale shows represents a combination of ignorance, greed and indifference.
The trainers speak of deep emotional bonds formed with killer whales but admit to having no training in marine biology, just a passion for working with the underwater mammals.
Their recollections are interspersed with SeaWorld promotional footage and news reports of trainer injuries. These perpetuate a view of orcas as gentle giants in captivity and of trainer error as the sole reason they occasionally go rogue.
As she unveils Tilikum’s sad history and living conditions, Cowperthwaite also fills in details about the physiology and habits of orcas in the wild, and how the practices of theme parks work against the intelligent species’ nature.
At times, Cowperthwaite’s work of advocacy has a chainsaw-like subtlety, and only one voice arises to speak in SeaWorld’s defense. But this tack conveys the life-or-death stakes of this story, and the film might’ve been more balanced had SeaWorld chosen to tell its side instead of stonewalling the filmmaker and focusing on discrediting her work.