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File photo of Tillikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performing during the show "Believe" in Orlando

A sad, fishy tale – ★★★½

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish looks at the dangers faced by trainers when working with captured killer whales. The real impetus to make the film came following the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau who was killed in 2010 by a whale who had been in captivity since 1983.

That whale at the centre of the film is Tilikum, who was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 at the age of three. Cowperthwaite’s thesis is that a life in captivity in small enclosed spaces without proper stimulation has caused unexplainable psychosis, which has see “Tilly” linked with the death of three separate people over a near twenty year period. What comes across is a team of filmmakers and interviewees who truly love and respect orcas who can’t claim to understand exactly how their brains operate, and would never now like to see them all free to roam the oceans as God intended. Whether they’ve always felt like this or turned on the company following the traume of Brancheau’s death is unclear but they’re an angry group of people who are more likely to lay siege to SeaWorld Orlando with flaming pitchforks as go back to work there.

While it is a powerful work of advocacy, at times Blackfish can feel a little like a propaganda piece, this is mainly because there is no voice defending SeaWorld or their policies. The obligatory “Seaworld did not return our requests for interview” line is trotted out but it leaves an incredibly unbalanced film that doesn’t even try to put forward any argument for keeping them for entertainment or eduction purposes. Following the film’s release, the company issued a lengthy press release outlining their problems with the film, it’s a pity they weren’t interested in clearing their name during production.

The film utilises a strong set of talking heads (not just trainers, but marine biologists and former whale trappers) alongside remarkable volumes of amateur footage of performances. If you saw last year’s Rust & Bone, then you’ll know the kind of show that they put out – cheesy pop music, exuberantly cheery trainers and lots of razzmatazz. Just imagine the horror when a creature turns on its keeper and decides to drag them under water.

When you’ve watched the film you’ll be certain of two things – i) the death of Brancheau was a true tragedy and ii) killer whales are phenomenal creatures who should be respected and allowed to roam free in their own natural environment and social circles. While it’s fascinating viewing, Blackfish is quite unbalanced and would have been elevated to truly essential status if it could have delved a little deeper into SeaWorld corporation, instead of simply offering one side of the story.


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Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.