It sounds almost trite to just come out with it, but Blackfish is a stunning documentary.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, it explores the dichotomy between popular visions of the Killer Whale – and though there is plenty of mauling, chomping and deep-water panic as it records stomach-churning fatal attacks, if there are any culprits here they are the humans.
The killer whale is often depicted as a graceful, friendly, dare-we-say-it cute mammal that we take our kids to see leaping about at sea parks. But that same animal can also be depicted as the mighty black and white ‘killer’ of its namesake that we normally see from the safety of our sofas making mincemeat in frighteningly few seconds of a poor seal in a David Attenborough nature programme.
Blackfish brings these contrasting visions into focus by highlighting the story of the infamous performing whale Tilikum from SeaWorld, Florida, who-unlike any ‘orca’ in the wild has killed several people while in captivity. What happened? Footage that’s never been seen before coupled with fascinating interviews with experts and trainers, hinting on cover-ups by park owners, reveal the complex and riveting nature of this magnificent beast and the culture that surrounds it.
The tightly woven elements of this documentary also look at the animal’s often cruel treatment over the last forty years, and pick up on the growing sense of disillusionment on the part of workers involved in the lucrative sea-park industry that feel like they’ve been misled and, worse, their lives been put in danger. The tragedy is we realise, that these whales don’t really want to kill humans, but in unnatural situations, act unpredictably.
Like the best nature programmes, Blackfish – though full of horror scenes which make you glad you’re not sharing the water with Tilikum any time soon – does not heighten the viewer’s perceived fear of killer whales, but rather makes us question our relationship to nature, open our eyes to how little we know about one of the ocean’s most incredible creatures, and gives us a glimpse of what we can actually learn from these intelligent and highly sentient mammals.
Compelling and unforgettable – let’s hope that films like this lead to an end to the use of killer whales in amusement parks. After seeing this, it’s hard to think of anything less entertaining.
Blackfish (Dogwoof) is out now.