Three years ago, a tragic event claimed the world’s headlines and subsequently raised awareness and countless questions regarding the treatment of sea based mammals and their relationship with man. Released this week, Blackfish is a truly innovative and unforgettable documentary which not only delivers as much information as it can from all viewpoints leading up to and following the tragedy, it also follows the conventions of psychological and political thrillers, creating an emotionally powerful cinematic experience.
In February 2010, whale trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed while working with her partnered performing killer whale Tilikum at Seaworld in Orlando, Florida. Documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite was alerted by the mass media circus following the tragic incident, while being made aware that there was more to the story than the news reporters, lawyers and former employees were telling.
Partly inspired by an article in Outdoors magazine that year on the subject of the inhumane treatment of whales in captivity and the subsequent psychological impact on the super intelligent and emotional animals, Cowperthwaite set to task locating and interviewing all the employees of Seaworld at the time. Amongst those who accompanied the 6 ton, 22 foot male, from infancy when he was captured by a team of hunters for the purposes of securing him for a tourist attraction (the moment itself recalled by the former captain of the vessel at the time which had such an impact he quit the same day and still recalls Tilkum’s cries with tears in his eyes) she also interviewed colleagues at the sea parks around the world involved in the caring of, and unwitting exploitation of the sentient creatures as well as those who were colleagues and friends of Dawn’s who were incensed by the subsequent damning of her name after her death.
Meanwhile, she followed the legal battle fought by Seaworld’s executives to retain the interaction with humans both in training and its spectacular audience grabbing performances, forming as complete a picture as possible despite the refusal by any representatives of the leisure corporation to tell their side of the story.
Featuring stunningly beautiful and moving footage of the whales both in captivity and in the wild shot by Jonathan Ingalls and Christopher Towey, and featuring a powerfully moving score by Jeff Beal, Cowperthwaite has succeeded in merging genres within fictional feature confines with the aesthetics of a real documentarian and truth seeking journalist, the results of which has given it a genuine chance of winning not only a best documentary Oscar but even that of best feature film overall.
Drawing on similar issues and situations as 2009’s exemplary The Cove, Blackfish deserves to receive as much attention. Emotional, intelligent and uncompromising, Blackfish is a brilliant political and psychological thriller interwoven with a belter of a sob story, not easy going by any stretch but unregrettable viewing.