Blackfish, the feature-length documentary from Gabriela Cowperthwaite, investigates the 2010 tragic death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau by a 12,000 pound male orca whale, Tilikum, at Seaworld Orlando. Using archive news footage inter-cut with interviews with former Seaworld trainers, Blackfish examines the chequered history of keeping orca whales in captivity, from its grim beginnings to its tragic current state. Beginning with the capture of Tilikum in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, using deeply saddening archive footage, Cowperthwaite draws the audience in with what is ultimately an objective, fact-driven love story to these majestic, almost spiritual, creatures.
Blackfish truly is a lesson in engaging, intelligent documentary making. No single point was laboured, and the sheer volume of content in Blackfish, before even adding merit for cinematic style, is commendable alone; like with any accomplished film maker, Cowperthwaite’s argument manages to be balanced with a varying range of testimonials to both support and challenge her message. This alone would have been enough to separate Blackfish from the mundane but, Cowperthwaite brings a plethora of cinematic goodies to delight the viewer. The film is visceral; with an impressive, highly researched and at times ethereally edited collection of archive footage, it is both powerful and dynamic to watch. The juxtaposition of the shocking stock footage against the retro, shiny Seaworld adverts worked fantastically to highlight the falsity of the image over the real. Both of us went into this documentary thinking that we wanted to see real footage of the attack, but by the halfway point we both flip-flopped and were hiding behind gasps and shocked head-rubs, actively willing the documentary not to show us anymore graphic footage; to clarify, we do not see Dawn’s death, but a series of previous attacks on trainers and other orcas that become increasingly difficult to watch.
Cowperthwaite has really achieved something special here with Blackfish; it’s gripping, emotional, truthful and beautiful all in equal measures. This film is stunning and raises questions that, as conscious and responsible consumers, we should all be thinking about completely. The relationship between man and animal is the constant theme throughout, and Blackfish raises questions of the wider issue of animals in captivity, but does it in such a way as to make we, the audience, complicit in finding the answers rather than presenting them to us.
Blackfish has been picked up for theatre distribution in the UK and US, with a July 26th release date. If there is one documentary you watch at the cinema this summer, make it Blackfish.