PARK CITY, UTAH—Opening with a heart-stopping 2010 video of SeaWorld Orlando senior trainer Dawn Brancheau being dragged to her death by Tilikum, an orca known for killing before, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish is enough to make anybody think twice about the wisdom of turning whales into performers.
Blackfish, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, relies on often-disturbing video shot by various park guests and trainers that shows orcas turning on staff in what experts in the film explain are not acts of aggression, but rather frustration at being held in, as one describes it, “a concrete bathtub.”
In fact, there are 70 documented cases of attacks by orcas at marine parks globally, including at the now-shuttered Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, B.C., in 1991. Two women who witnessed the fatal attack on part-time trainer Keltie Byrne describe the incident in horrifying detail. The whale responsible for her death, Tilikum, was then sold to SeaWorld.
The trainers interviewed in Blackfish, many of whom came to SeaWorld with no prior experience or knowledge of killer whales, speak, occasionally tearfully, about the sense of responsibility they felt for the animals they worked with, even after attacks or close calls.
SeaWorld refused to be interviewed for the doc.
Comparisons to Louie Psihoyos’ 2009 dolphin capture exposé The Cove are likely (and Psihoyos was in the audience for the Monday morning screening). Blackfish doesn’t pack the same visceral punch, although only the hardest hearts will be unmoved by 1970 footage of Washington state fishermen kidnapping baby orcas for use in parks. One of the fishers admitted those young whales that didn’t survive the return to shore were gutted, their carcasses filled with rocks and sunk.
Blackfish, which takes its title from the First Nations’ word for the orca, helps make its case with the help of behaviorists and a neurologist who explain the intelligence and complex social structure of each orca “family” and how removing calves from mothers causes emotional turmoil and chaotic reactions.
Cowperthwaite said she didn’t come to her subject as a crusader, but rather looking for a story to tell.
“I took my kids to SeaWorld years before making this movie and I was not completely comfortable but I did and kind of bought into the iconic Shamu thing,” explained Cowperthwaite after the screening. “It embarrasses me to admit it but I became interested in the subject because Dawn (Brancheau) was killed and it was just bizarre and scary, and I had as a filmmaker the question: why would a whale essentially bite the hand that feeds it?”