Monday, July 22, 2013
No movie this year has had a stronger emotional effect on me than Gabriela Cowperthwaite's devastating documentary "Blackfish," about orcas held in captivity by Sea World and its ilk, an industry founded on inhuman cruelty, avarice without limit, and lies, lies, lies. Like all the best documentaries, "Blackfish" derives its force from the rigor and exacting detail with which it makes its case. Anyone who sees it and is not moved is someone I don't want to know, and if you're an animal lover, forget it. It'll rip your heart out.
Cowperthwaite begins by re-introducing us to our fellow mammal, the orca. I say re-introducing because the lurid appellation "killer whale" and schlocky B-grade horror movies from the 70's created a popular misconception of the orca as a blood-thirsty threat to man. In fact, there has never been a single recorded incident of an orca killing a human being in the wild. The orca is an intrinsically familial animal. Each family uses its own sounds to communicate, with no overlap, and the personality of each individual orca is divided, so to speak, among the family. A neurologist explains that the orca's brain contains a lobe not found in humans, heightening the animal's emotional sensitivity and memory.
Cowperthwaite next interviews a boat captain who, as a young man not knowing any better, participated in the capture of several baby orcas, including Tilikum, the central figure in the movie. This is a grizzly bear of a man and a sort of jack of all trades who admits to a role in the involuntary "regime change" of several Central American countries. Holding back tears, he confesses, "This was the worst thing I've ever done," and no doubt it was. We watch as the whale families, who had lived through a similar hell once before, separated, in hopes that only the older whales would be captured. The mothers and babies veered away and stayed underwater as long as they could. But the boats' cameras caught sight of them and the crews swooped in with seines. The others, who could then have swum to safety, returned to try in vain to form a barrier and protect the babies. The mothers - then and for weeks afterward - emitted sounds of guttural pain the likes of which one whale researcher said she'd never heard before or since. By this point, I was bawling and didn't care who saw me.
Tilikum was taken to a shabby makeshift water park in British Columbia called Sealand - really just a barely dressed-up holding tank - where Tilly took his first human victim. It's the remarkable achievement of "Blackfish" that we're able to see this and subsequent fatalities not as the vicious act of an irredeemable species but as a predictable and tragic consequence of a sort of psychosis induced by the trauma of being forcibly taken from one's mother and kept locked in a space a fraction the size of, and with none of the freedom of, one's natural habitat. (It's amazing how much video footage of the actual attacks Cowperthwaite has amassed, yet she handles it with restraint; the most sensationalistic scenes are kept off-screen.)
After the owner of Sealand shut its seedy doors - a day late and a dollar short - SeaWorld's response was not to mourn Keltie Byrne, the student and part-time trainer who'd been killed, or to learn anything from the incident, but to snatch Tilly up as quickly as possible and fly him to Orlando to star in their Shamu show. He has since killed two more people, including, in 2010, 40-year-old head trainer Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau was one of the most experienced trainers at SeaWorld and among the most self-critical. She videotaped every performance she ever gave to note what she might have done wrong or could do better. Everything we see of her exudes joy and love of animals. And SeaWorld's handling of her death lays bare its psychopathy, greed, and utter lack of human compassion or decency.
The company's first reaction to Dawn's death was to feed police and reporters a completely false account of the incident, erroneously suggesting Tilly mistook her ponytail for a fish and dragged her into the water by her hair. When eyewitness accounts (and later the video itself) contradicted this lame-brained story, SeaWorld reconvened and concocted a new version, coldly blaming Brancheau for "trainer error." In fact, as the video shows (and again, Cowperthwaite mercifully cuts out before the gruesome end), Dawn and Tilly were engaged in a routine they'd executed countless times before. Something in the animal has simply - and understandably - snapped.
Again, SeaWorld's response is telling. They have not retired Tilly or returned him to the ocean. Rather, they've kept him at stud, using him to inseminate female whales and making him the sire to dozens of SeaWorld orcas. The most frightening graphic in the movie shows the family tree of whales carrying Tilly's genes and predispositions. In plain English, you're going to be hearing about a lot more deaths at SeaWorld in the years to come.
Everything SeaWorld says is a lie. They say female orcas live to be sixty, males thirty. In the wild, females can live over a hundred years, males over sixty. SeaWorld says about 25% of male orcas have a curved-in dorsal fin. In the wild, fewer than 1% of orcas evince this physical deformity. They say their orcas live happy, healthy lives together with their families. In reality, these majestic mammals meant to swim the ocean in freedom lie locked in holding tanks kept dark all night to save the cost of electricity, are chronically underfed as punishment for perceived imperfections in their performances, and are forced into makeshift families in which the dominant females raze the newcomers, sometimes to a bloody pulp, to stake claim to their limited territory. In short, SeaWorld is a place of ongoing horror and tragedy. You'll have to fight the urge to upchuck when you see the fake smiles and benign façade of their commercials.
Some of the most powerful words in "Blackfish" are spoken by former SeaWorld trainers themselves. None of them has a background in marine biology, let alone prior experience relating to orcas. These were just kids, good swimmers and divers who loved animals and thought they'd found their dream job. They read their scripts and believed them as readily as the audience - after all, why would SeaWorld lie? Only when their colleague Dawn Brancheau lost her life did they begin to realize the truth. If Dawn - the golden child - could be killed, none of them was safe. And though it takes time to reconcile the morass of emotions, the blame lies not with these smart, sentient animals, but with the hypocritical and amoral-to-the-core industry that terrorizes and exploits them.