Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Australian release date: Now showing, Luna Leederville
Verdict: An eye-opening and ultimately enraging real-life tragedy, riveting from first frame to last.
There’s an interview not far into this gripping, heart-breaking and sometimes shocking doco, in which a grizzled outdoorsy tough-guy adventurer type recounts herding a pod of wild Orcas into a net enclosure, then isolating the babies. He describes the agonised calling of the mothers as they watch on in panic and despair, refusing to return to the open sea even after their babies had been removed to a life of performing in confinement in sea-parks. The interview is intercut with a filmed baby Orca capture that is hard to watch. The man divulges that he’d spent years in South America supporting revolutionaries and bringing down governments, during which he had seen some terrible things, but none worse than the suffering of the Orca mothers he witnessed that day at sea.
We learn that one of those babies he helped to capture was a male subsequently named Tilikum. That may ring a bell. Tilikum has made headlines around the world. He has killed two of his trainers during his two decades of captivity – most recently in 2010 – and been involved in a third death. He is now held in solitary confinement (a terrible ordeal for a highly intelligent and emotionally developed animal that scientists have declared the most sociable on the planet). Sick and probably psychotic, Tilikum is too valuable to turn loose – his semen is worth millions.
The point was made by one of the interviewees that most of the Orcas at SeaWorld, one of America’s largest sea-park corporations, are Tilikum’s progeny, and therefore carry his killer genes.
Regardless of the scientific validity of that observation, it seems pretty bloody clear from the evidence presented in the film that dangerous genetic traits would be of no concern to SeaWorld; they appear to care as little about the welfare of their trainers as their Orcas.
There is some horrifying previously unreleased edge-of-the-seat footage of sea-park trainers being killed and maimed by captive Orcas (including Tilikum) abruptly and unaccountably deviating from their standard training and performance routines. And why should that come as any surprise? There is compelling evidence that these enormous wild creatures suffer in captivity, their life spans halved, their physical and mental condition severely affected by, as one interviewee puts it, “living in a bathtub”.
Naturally, the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry disputes such claims, insisting that their Orcas enjoy better health than in the open ocean and love performing. Despicably, they even resort to blaming the deaths and injuries on trainer error. According to the trainers interviewed, this is an outrageous claim unsupported by the footage, or the first-hand accounts of peers as to the diligence and professionalism of the victims.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite states that her motivation as a filmmaker does not stem from an animal rights agenda, but out of a need to try to understand how the sea-park killings could have occurred, given the close bonds that seem to exist between the Orcas and their trainers. As she progressed with her research, she was astonished by her findings on the extraordinary nature of the Orcas, the cruelty imposed on them by confinement in sea-parks, the danger to which trainers are exposed, and the defensive strategy adopted by SeaWorld – that is, blatantly substituting facts with lies to avoid accepting any responsibility for the welfare of either animals or trainers in their charge. Or simply refusing to comment (they denied all interview requests by the filmmakers).
This is not some bleeding heart animal libber pulpit-preaching exercise. Rather, it’s an investigation into the Orca, wild and captive, that fills you with wonder and fury, and provides a mouthpiece for the trainers who clearly genuinely love and respect the animals but have been duped and exploited by a multi-billion dollar industry surviving on deception and borrowed time.
I don’t see how anyone could watch this film and retain a view that capturing and confining magnificent wild creatures and training them to ‘entertain’ by aping human actions is acceptable. But then, I don’t see how the WA State government or any political party outside the lunatic fringe could seriously contemplate a shark-cull policy as a sensible and effective human protection policy. Christ, it’s the animals that need protecting, not us.
But I digress. Go and see Blackfish. As a doco it’s all class: well-researched, beautifully crafted, as gripping as any thriller, and important as a tiny step towards some glad future day when we might justly be able to call ourselves civilised as a species.
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