Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary is an investigation into the life of Tilikum, a bull orca living in SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Tilikum has been involved in the deaths of three trainers: Keitie Byrne in 1991, Daniel Dukes in 1999 and Dawn Brancheau in 2010. It is the third of these that is given the most coverage in the film, which is understandable as it was the starting point around which the rest of the investigation grew. The film also explores the cruel living conditions of orcas once in captivity when being used in waterpark entertainment shows, also touching on the hunting of Tilikum in the early 1980s and discussions on a psychological level on his mental condition after being mistreated for so long.
The contents of the film have been vehemently discredited by SeaWorld, who have distanced themselves from the final product. In the aftermath of its release, the company published an open letter to refute a number of the claims in the film and created a dedicated section of their website titled “Truth About Blackfish”. Despite this, a number of high profile musicians (including The Beach Boys and Barenaked Ladies) dropped out of an annual festival at the Orlando park and they also saw a drop in park attendance, though these two facts are likely closely linked. Furthermore, Pixar altered a section of the upcoming Finding Dory film that featured a depiction of a water park. It is clear that the message contained in Blackfish has resonated around the world and it’s significant that the general attitude has changed.
The reason for this is the huge power in both the content of the film and the expert manner in which it is told. Cowperthwaite is understandably very passionate about the subject matter and clearly open a can of worms in the journey she went on in the creation of the film. Like any great documentary, that passion is transferred directly to the viewer.
Regardless of any bias included in order to help tell the story, any other details would be mere branches of excuses and extenuating circumstances. The bottom line here is that the capture and holding of orcas in order to get them to perform in shows is a travesty. The saddening thing for me is that I have been to the Orlando park and enjoyed the show there, just before the film was released in the UK. Had I known about it my attitude would certainly have been completely different. Like the thousands of people who have seen this film and also attended the shows, I’m embarrassed by the fact I saw the show as a fun experience. Now I can see it more clearly: it’s plainly a form of cruelty to animals and should be stopped.
Blackfish is available on Netflix and can also be bought on Blu-Ray and DVD.