Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Black Mark

Just this week, a brief story circulated in the news that Tilikum, the most famous (and infamous) killer whale of SeaWorld Orlando, is in rapidly declining health. Quite by coincidence, I had just watched the film Blackfish the night before.

In case you didn't hear of it when it premiered in 2013, Blackfish is a documentary on SeaWorld and the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite began making it following an attack in which SeaWorld Orlando's largest whale, Tilikum, killed trainer Dawn Brancheau. The documentary highlights this as the third fatality involving Tilikum, and convincingly argues that (despite the scapegoating of Brancheau) there was ample evidence to think an incident like this was inevitable. In a series of interviews with marine biologists and former SeaWorld trainers, the film powerfully argues that while killer whales are quite social in the wild, they can't help but be driven mad by prolonged captivity.

If you're the sort of person who imagines two sides to every story, Blackfish is not the documentary for you. Though the film does include token sound bites from one or two people attempting to defend SeaWorld, they come off either deluded or pathological alongside everything else. The family of Dawn Brancheau have sought to distance themselves from the film since its release. Some interview subjects stated afterward that they felt blindsided by the tone the finished film had taken. And of course, SeaWorld has argued steadfastly against the movie.

And yet I find myself not caring about any of that in the final analysis. If there's any merit to the claim of the movie being manipulative, I say it performs exactly the sort of emotional manipulation a good movie is supposed to. It's expertly crafted to inspire sorrow and/or outrage, and you're never conscious of being steered. The movie may well leave you with slight guilt even to own a dog or a cat, and inconsolable at the living conditions of these killer whales. It's a powerfully emotional film. (And, notably, even the film's few detractors seem to stop short of saying it actually lies about anything.)

I now understand the confusion over Blackfish not receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Though I can't claim to have seen all the films that were in that year's race, it certainly feels like this one should have been in the hunt. I give it an A-.

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