Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Blackfish Film Poster, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Magnolia Pictures

While Hollywood languishes inside of digitized cliché and regressive idolatry of the almighty dollar, the collective work of internationally-based documentary film makers only seems to improve year after year. Is it access to better and more easily functional technology or access to better and more compelling stories? What we used to revere as The News, is now so manufactured by particular interest groups as to render what passes for information is generally opinion. With the 24-hour news cycle comes a kind of desensitization of the news, or what is happening in the world, so that we as a collective society have relegated to the documentary film genre and to that peculiar brand of filmmaker the truly courageous chase of journalism. The journalism of documentary film is not always objective, as in the case of Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell (National Film Board of Canada), but it is generally fascinating and full enough of great stories and characters to overcome the slant of unbiased storytelling that is, more and more, the best form of informative media almost anyone currently has access to.

Take The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Final Cut For Real), in which the director offers the hitmen of Indonesian dictator’s Suharto’s death squad a chance to reenact their gruesome murders, in whatever Hollywood genre they wish to use. The film crescendoes to a bloody and violent apex only to grind to a halt as the murderers begin to intimately realize what they have done. This is more than the news could ever be. This is the new post-postmodern reality of melding the fantasical form of fictional film to the everyday make-believe humanity creates to get through the murder of life.

Many other noteworthy films from this year follow the example of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I live In, which give voice to those people who have little to no voice in society. Inequality For All by Jacob Kornbluth, Gideon’s Army by Dawn Porter, A River Changes Course by Kalyanee Mam and The Square from Jehane Noujaim are some of the best among a host of others. Yet the 2013 documentary film which has and will have affected change is Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Magnolia Pictures).

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

2. Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

When The Cove premiered at the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival, the director, Louie Psihoyos, answered questions from the audience after what amounted to one of the only showings of the controversial film in Japan. With the mayor of Taiji, the Japanese IWC Representative, the notorious Private Space all in attendance, Psihoyos spoke about why he had to make this film:

The skeptics wanted to focus on animal rights, but this isn’t just an animal rights issue…It’s a human health issue also. And I wanted everyone in the theater to understand that. It’s a human rights film because people need to know that the levels of mercury is off-the-charts toxic.

The Cove was called the Citizen Cane of environmental documentaries and while it proved to be ground-breaking–in many ways analagous to Kane–in its ability to uncover certain of the monstrosities perpetuated upon the animal kingdom by humans, the film was ultimately unable to create the upwelling of support domestically necessary to bring about swift and sure change in the treatment of cetaceans. People couldn’t relate. Americans don’t eat dolphin, never have. But Seaworld? This is where Blackfish changes everything.

The 83 minute film revolves around Tilikum, a 34-year-old orca, whose story is told from his initial capture in the North Atlantic in 1983 to his first non-ocean home at Sealand of The Pacific, where, in 1991, he was responsible for killing trainer Keltie Byrne. After which he was sold to SeaWorld Orlando, where trainers were kept in the dark about the whale’s involvement in Byrne’s death and permitted to work closely with him. Cowperthwaite gives these trainers voice to share with the audience the incorrect whale facts given to park visitors – from diminished whale lifespans to supposed whale behaviors. Since Blackfish’s production ex-trainer John Hargrove has written Beneath the Surface, an expose on the Seaworld culture.

Several whale attacks are seen and explained, including one involving trainer Ken Peters, who survived the grip of a killer whale who inexplicably refused to release him. Eventually we see the story which got Cowperthwaite off of her couch and talking to people: when veteran killer whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was attacked and killed by Tilikum on February 24, 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando.

Seaworld, not mentioning the film itself, took out full-page ads in national newspapers in mid-December 2013 which read “SeaWorld: The Truth Is in Our Parks and People” and summarized the following points:

  • SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.
  • We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.
  • SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.
  • SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.
  • The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.
  • SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.

OPS, the Oceanic Preservation Society, led by Louie Psihoyos, has released a letter countering SeaWorld’s facts, entitled, “Marine Mammal Captivity: The Truth Is in the Facts.” The subtitle reads “An Open Letter from the Informed American Public,” which is an important point. 50 years ago when SeaWorld was created, their ethos that “our guests may enter our gates having never given much thought to the remarkable animals in our oceans,” was largely true. Most Americans didn’t know anything about fish, let alone cetaceans and other marine mammals. 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, “when they leave with a greater appreciation for the importance of the sea, educated about the animals that live there and inspired to make a difference, we have done our job,” this statement might have been true to the extent that other than those guided by self-interest and curiosity in the exploration of marine biology, not many people in general give much thought to what lives in the ocean other than the tuna fish sandwich their mom used to make them, but today is another story.

Today we have documentaries like The Cove, Sharkwater, Atlantis, and the work of Jacques Cousteau, who taught that there is as much educational benefit in studying dolphins and whales in captivity as there is in studying humans by observing prisoners in solitary confinement. Today we do not have to rely solely on passionate experts like Cousteau, Cowperthwaite and Psihoyos. Today we have the ability to find out for ourselves what kind of world we live in, and more than ever, choose what kind of world we want to live in. The fact that Blackfish has been aired multiple times on CNN to an audience of more than 20 million, and has become available via iTunes and Netflix, is proof enough that the American public is interested and is becoming educated.

The letter finishes by saying “The truth about SeaWorld is in the facts. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish and our film The Cove give viewers a deep and meaningful connection with the remarkable animals in our oceans. But this is just the beginning of a growing shift in public awareness about the impoverished lives of animals at SeaWorld. As Cowperthwaite says, young people today are becoming the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation. No amount of advertising will counter the Blackfish Effect. SeaWorld, your job is to now adapt to an informed public.”

Whether we agree that capturing and holding animals in captivity is something we as a society want to continue, a related issue has to be that of the survival of the oceans, acidifying at an alarming rate. The Losing Nemo animated short by, coincidentally enough, The Black Fish, is compelling enough to get you to think that without changing the way we do many things, the only animals that exist will be in tanks and surrounded by cages, ourselves included.