Blackfish might make you reconsider that family trip to SeaWorld this year

Gabriela Cowperthwaite is a filmmaker with an agenda. With Blackfish, a ruthless exposé of amusement park juggernaut SeaWorld and the methods with which they have kept killer whales in captivity for decades, Cowperthwaite is out to elicit change.

Blackfish traces SeaWorld’s dark history through the life of Tilikum, an orca implicated in the death of three humans, including the highly publicised death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Through testimonials from former trainers and marine experts, horrifying footage of near-fatal incidents with killer whales in captivity (none of the deaths are shown on film), and point-by-point breakdowns of the misinformation SeaWorld stands behind, Blackfish paints a portrait of a cold, immoral corporation - a stark contrast to the family friendly image SeaWorld has built for itself.

In a year that found documentarians experimenting with the medium, Cowperthwaite presents a traditional documentary format more akin to a 90-minute television special; albeit one with a strong message and a compelling story. The result is powerful despite its own simplicity.

SeaWorld refused to participate in the making of the film, and as such there is not a single voice throughout that seeks to defend them. It is this lack of counter-point, along with the former trainers’ obvious desire to absolve themselves of their perceived crimes, which ultimately serve to undermine the film’s message. At one point a former trainer goes so far as to state through teary eyes that his only reason for staying with SeaWorld for so long was out of sympathy for the whales themselves, a bold statement which would not be out of place coming from a mob informant on the witness stand in a gangster film. As the credits roll, these ex-trainers are taken out to see whales in their natural habitat; they are given a happy ending which stands in stark contrast to the fate of the whales remaining in captivity.

The effects of Blackfish are already being felt, from musicians cancelling amusement park appearances to industry juggernaut Pixar altering the ending of their upcoming feature Finding Dory. A cursory glance of any social network at the moment is bound to feature somebody denouncing SeaWorld. As a piece of propaganda, Blackfish is an undeniable achievement. As a piece of filmmaking? It gets by.

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