Blackfish: On Truth in Documentary Filmmaking

There's really no such thing as a "true" documentary. Even documentaries made entirely of previously-existing footage, like Asif Kapadia's riveting 2010 documentary Senna, bear the opinions and biases of their creators. As such, debating the accuracy of documentaries is often less important than judging the quality of the film itself. We can debate all day the ethics of Michael Moore's elastic version of the truth, but if Bowling for Columbine moved you, it's been an effective documentary.

So while my admittedly cursory research has shown the film to be decently adherent to reality (if occasionally generous to itself), the unerring accuracy of Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish is of minor importance to me. What matters is that Blackfish is engaging, passionate, and utterly devastating. Unlike Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary, which is propped up as much by its subject matter and the fervor of its creator than anything else, Blackfish is expertly constructed and rarely makes a misstep.

That's not to say it's a perfect film; it occasionally veers into melodrama, and you get the sense that some of the interviews, especially those with the one dissenting voice in the room (SeaWorld repeatedly refused to be interviewed or make a statement for the filmmakers) are edited with a definite agenda in mind. But the raw video is terrifying and heartbreaking, the graphics are incredibly effective โ€“ their recreation of OSHA hearings is perfection โ€“ and the sense of foreboding never outflanks the sadness you feel, for the whales and trainers alike.

The film is a scathing indictment of both SeaWorld and the inhumane conditions in which captive orcas live their lives It focuses primarily on one whale, Tilikum, a giant among giants that's been responsible for three deaths in his time in captivity (for reference, the entirety of the world's orcas have been responsible for zero confirmed deaths in all of human history), the blame for which Cowperthwaite's interviewees (former trainers and orca experts) place directly and convincingly on his captivity.

The interviews, and footage accompanying them, are gut-wrenching. A retired sea dog breaks down describing the cries of the herd as one of their young are wrested from their pod and the process of disposing of whales killed during capture. Hearing a captive mother's wails after her calf is shipped to another park is a stark reminder that these are complex creatures, possibly more complex than you or I.

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The list of aggressive actions by captive orcas is horrifying and damning, and it culminates with the brutal death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. This and other violent episodes are explained away as accidents by SeaWorld and their attorneys, and often blamed on the trainers themselves. The smearing of Ms. Brancheau is especially hard to swallow. The false testimony (whether due to ignorance or not) by SeaWorld's head trainer regarding the park's culpability in the death of a trainer at a Spanish park is further damaging. When added to the basic, easily-refuted lies SeaWorld tells its visitors about the lifespan of whales, dorsal fin collapse, and their conditions at the park, Blackfish doesn't need to resort to deception and exaggeration: the facts speak for themselves.

Probably. Again, my amateur investigatory skills didn't turn up anything beyond the usual friendly framing that exists in every documentary. But it's secondary to the raw emotional response the film brought out of me. My stance on captive whales was friendly to the makers of Blackfish before I saw it, so your mileage may vary. But film is a medium with both the aim and the capacity to make us feel, whether it's joy, sadness, or rage. Blackfish is a rousing success in this regard and an example of what a passion project should be.

Rating: 4.5/5

Joshua McCool can be found on Twitter @joshuaadavidd. His film ratings can be found at Letterboxd.

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Photo credit: Howard Ignatius