In Jacques Audiard’s recent film De Rouille Et D’os (Rust And Bone), a killer whale trainer played by Marion Cotillard is attacked by an orca in the middle of a show at a tourist marine park. It is one of the more striking cinematic sequences of recent years, with the camerawork suggesting the point of view of Cotillard’s character Stéphanie as she struggles helplessly against the giant creature’s grip. Audiard manages to capture a sense of the size and strength of the mammal, and the attack is so severe Stéphanie loses both legs as a result.

Real-life incidents like this are the subject of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s informative and moving documentary Blackfish, which examines the captivity and training of orcas in marine theme parks in Canada, Spain and the US, primarily focusing on SeaWorld and one bull whale in particular, named Tilikum.

Tilikum was originally captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983, and for many years was held in captivity in Sealand, a marine park in Canada. During his time at Sealand Tilikum was regularly attacked by other female whales, and grew more and more aggressive as a result, eventually drowning part-time trainer Keltie Byrne in 1991 with the help of two female orcas after Byrne slipped and fell into the pool. Witnesses interviewed by Cowperthwaite for this documentary maintain that Tilikum was the chief aggressor, but when Sealand closed shortly after the incident all three whales were purchased by SeaWorld.

Tilikum has been involved in two further deaths since moving to SeaWorld; in 1999 a man named Daniel Dukes was found dead in the whale’s pool (he was actually discovered on Tilikum’s back) after evading security and remaining behind when the park had closed for the day. More recently, in 2010, Tilikum killed experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau following a ‘Dine with Shamu’ show. Despite repeated aggressive behaviour and signs of psychosis SeaWorld have been using Tilikum for breeding purposes for many years, and the whale has fathered dozens of calves, some of which remain with the park and some of which have been sold on to other parks around the world. As of 13 August 2013, there are 45 orcas in captivity worldwide, 32 of which are captive-born.

Cowperthwaite records the opinions of former SeaWorld employees – mainly whale trainers – as well as other people who have worked with or helped to capture whales over the years while employed by SeaWorld and other parks. She also talks to witnesses, family members of the deceased and whale experts, building a strong case that argues for an end to whale captivity. Many of the trainers interviewed had (and still have) deep emotional ties with the whales they trained, but by and large they have left their jobs and now accept that whales should not be kept in pools or trained to perform. The whale experts (and one former whale trapper) interviewed are unanimous in stressing that separating whales from their families in the wild and keeping them in captivity is a cruel process which is probably largely to blame for any aggressive behaviour.

According to the documentary there are no recorded attacks on humans by killer whales in the wild (though I would strongly advise against ever going swimming in their vicinity). Research has shown that the marine mammals have well-developed brains and a very strong sense of family – even stronger than that of humans – hence the mass beachings of whales that occasionally take place; if one whale beaches, other members of its family may join it in a show of solidarity. (There is also some suggestion that mass beachings occur after undersea earthquakes.) It’s not rocket science: the creatures are strongly attached to their families and are used to swimming for dozens of miles a day in the wild; pools and performance routines for tourists give them none of that freedom.

Interestingly, despite repeated attempts by the filmmaker to involve the park, SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for the documentary, and their official line on Brancheau’s death at the time laid the blame with the trainer. The documentary accuses SeaWorld of a cover-up, suggesting a conspiracy is in place so that public performances can continue and park takings do not suffer unduly; there is certainly much talk of the suspicious disappearance of CCTV footage here. The park’s arguments in response to the documentary’s assertions have since been stated via press releases and its own website, and naturally they dispute the accusations of cruelty, conspiracy and the repeated suggestions that safety at the parks is an issue. They also disagree with the documentary’s findings that orcas in the wild will live for – on average – 60 to 70 years longer than those held in captivity. Still, Cowperthwaite gradually sucks credibility from SeaWorld’s arguments by juxtaposing the park’s family-friendly ‘magical’ advertising videos and whale dolls with footage of trainers fighting for their lives in whale pools and select details from coroners’ reports. She has also invited SeaWorld to take part in a public debate, something the park authorities have not accepted.

In the film, SeaWorld’s employees are mainly shown coming in or out of court, although park staff are filmed secretly and appear to be giving tourists information that is wildly different to the apparent facts whale experts say to the camera. It is a shame they declined the opportunity to participate, and the documentary is all the more damning as a result. As expected with such a controversial subject, the debate continues to rage: in January 2014, the family of the late trainer Dawn Brancheau said neither it nor the foundation named after her were affiliated with the film, and that they did not believe it accurately reflected Brancheau or her experiences. Court cases rumble on, performances have been cancelled and the issue is now very much on the public and political agenda.

I’m no expert, but to my mind Cowperthwaite presents a reasoned argument for ending whale captivity and performances in Blackfish, which is backed up by extensive research and the opinions of a range of experts. Her documentary is filled with emotional, moving interviews and startling footage, and one of the saddest scenes I have seen in a long time shows a whale being separated from its family; a captor involved that day talks about his own experience, and his realisation mid-capture that something terrible was happening. He is still visibly haunted by the process nearly thirty years after the event.

Presumably Cowperthwaite’s main aim in making Blackfish was to end whale captivity in theme parks. Time will tell as to whether she is successful, but she should be commended for managing to raise public awareness of the issue at the very least. It is a gripping and disturbing documentary, and an excellent companion piece to Louis Psihoyos’ Academy Award-winning 2009 film The Cove. I expect most people who watch it will never visit a marine park with performing whales again.

The Basics:
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Written by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres, Tim Zimmermann
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 83 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 8.0

17 Responses to “0155 | Blackfish”

    • Popcorn Nights

      Thanks Mikey! I was really hooked by the interviews and the attack footage. It’s a well-made documentary.

  1. Naomi

    Just saw this a week ago, and yes, I agree that it’s an excellent companion piece to The Cove. I also got reminded of Project Nim (although Nim IMO somewhat transcended these two documentaries, it became a rather philosophical, very profound piece), and all three are deeply passionate documentaries.

    A lot of people complained about Blackfish, saying that it’s one-sided. But I think that’s just naive and perhaps ignorant. The filmmaker did try to get SeaWorld to participate but they refused AND after all, aren’t all documentaries subjective, to a certain extent?

    • Popcorn Nights

      I haven’t seen Project Nim – it looks absolutely fascinating. I ought to check it out.

      It’s a shame SeaWorld didn’t participate but as you say if she offered them the chance to take part and they refused then there’s not really much else that can be done about it. I think it speaks volumes, really!

  2. CMrok93

    Very hard-to-watch/listen-to movie as it shows that there’s a problem out there that we should all pay attention to and try our hardest to fix. It seems like most of it’s working, but for right now, we’re just all waiting. Good review.

    • Popcorn Nights

      Thanks Dan. I read that there is a Bill out there at the moment that may get things changed, and also a court decreed that trainers are not allowed to get into the pool with whales any more for shows, but I’m not sure if that has been overturned. Very hard to watch at times, I agree.

  3. Consumed by Film

    Excellent review mate! For me this is one of 2013’s best documentaries. Tough to watch, indicative and very hard to argue against. You’re right in that it’s a shame there’s no SeaWorld interaction.


    • Popcorn Nights

      Hi Adam,
      Thanks very much. I think it’s one of the better ones I saw last year, although I really enjoyed Nostalgia For The Light too (if enjoyed is the right word). There are quite a few I still want to catch up with.
      I’ve been to SeaWorld a few times over the years but won’t be going again.

  4. Todd Benefiel

    Nice review, Stu. I really liked this documentary, too, and I try to get others to watch it as well. I think what made it most eye-opening to me were the thoughts of the former trainers and employees, who seemed sincere about their feelings towards the whole thing. A very sad film, too.

    • Popcorn Nights

      Thanks Todd. I will try and be evangelical about this one too, the more people see it the better! It was a great selection of interviews – amazing how many trainers felt like they had been mis-informed or lied to during their employment.

    • Popcorn Nights

      Cheers! I expect their takings are down quite a bit during the past 12 months.

    • Stu

      Thanks! Well worth it – I think it’s on Netflix in the UK if you have a subscription, but BBC4 have shown it too and will probably put it on again soon.

      • Writer Loves Movies

        Can’t believe I missed it when it was on TV! Just my luck. Checked Netflix and it’s no longer on there but I can get a rental from Amazon. Might hold out a couple of weeks for a BBC repeat though – was it on recently?

        • Stu

          Yes – about a four or five weeks ago I think, but they’ve shown it three times or so in 7 or 8 months.

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