By Ed Wall
Is Blackfish a film with a message but no meaning, or a film with a meaning but no message?
Although it’s not immediately obvious which of these dubious honours it might have garnered, the result is certainly not particularly impressive. Bursting with information, it singularly fails to cohere – a weak sum of potentially strong, individually compelling parts. You suspect that, had there been anyone on board with the same amount of passion for the subject as the makers of, say, 2009’s The Cove [Louie Psihoyos’ angry interrogation of Japan’s dolphin hunting culture], the result might have been a very different kettle of whale.
The purported subject of this mixed bag is Tilikum, resident of SeaWorld in Orlando Florida, the largest Orca in captivity and to this date responsible (depending on one’s definition of responsibility) for the deaths of at least three people. Through a combination of historical footage, interviews and data, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite attempts to profile Tilikum both as individual and in the wider context of ‘the industry’ of whale-based amusement parts, from shady, frontier-like beginnings in the 1970s to the current SeaWorld-dominated landscape.
As a spin on the typical documentary format, Tilikum’s story is covertly presented as a kind of murder mystery/court case. It’s an unnecessary piece of directorial artifice, and the noose by which the film hangs itself. Cowperthwaite is a weak prosecutor, unable (or unwilling) to take a position beyond some bland notion of ‘objectivity’. In this context, the form is pointless; a purely superficial touch.
Cowperthwaite is a veteran of a particular breed of televisual documentaries, having worked for some of the big names (National Geographic, Animal Planet, ESPN, The Discovery Channel) in the past. There’s something in her style that’s vaguely, uneasily, reminiscent of the parades of cable TV documentaries you might flick through at hotel stopovers. There’s an indistinct impression of disinterest in the way she approaches the subject matter; some mercenary element that’s more focused on presentation and graphics than content. This commitment to superficiality imbues some weak information with too much significance, and sucks the life out of the stronger material.
While the film is happy to (rightly) suggest SeaWorld is to blame for a lack of compassion and common sense in relation to the treatment of its water-bound behemoths, the question of motivations is never explored. In an identikit series of inane interviews with wide-eyed former trainers, Cowperwaithe steadfastly refuses to pin any of them down on where exactly they think they might fit into the tragic picture as a whole.
Bar one square-headed nutter who, employing a logic that’s so perverse it’s almost laudable, tries to claim that whales performing like trained dogs for crowds of baying humans constitutes man honouring nature, one after another of these former SeaWorld devotees spit near-identical repentant/outraged tidbits. As though the goons in a fallen dictatorship had been given the platform on which to absolve themselves, Cowperwaithe presents this parade of disembodied characters spilling words and tears, tears and words – as though there was no inherent value in making sure any of it was honest.
Of all the individuals interviewed, the one who emerges from the film with the most credit is the rather brilliantly named Dave Duffus, an expert witness for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in the case brought by the US government against SeaWorld’s working conditions after the last of Tilikum’s ‘accidents’. Duffus’ clear respect for Orca whales and his palpable anger at the whole sorry business transcends Cowperthwaithe’s lame ‘neutrality’. Oddly, it also means that, amid the confusion, he stands out in the film to a degree that makes him feel more central than Tilikum.
As a piece of documentary filmmaking I’m pretty sure it is, if not a total failure, then at least a weak specimen of the genre. On the other hand, the agenda it has little or no interest in using its scattergun stack of information to fully support is one that a lot of the people who will end up seeing it already subscribe to: that keeping animals in a state of captivity is inhumane. As one of these viewers it’s a challenge to know how to react. Your instinct is to agree, but something makes you hesitate. It’s like watching Bono preaching about the plight of children in Africa, but with the nagging suspicion he bought an extra first class seat on the plane for his hat.
It’s confusing, painful to watch, when someone with no clear view of which field they’d rather be in positively hurls themselves onto the fence in the apparent name of objectivity, writhing around for an hour and a half before ascending to that beige heaven reserved solely for those who were pure enough to desire purgatory. SeaWorld representatives, naturally, declined to be interviewed for the film. Given the all-forgiving tolerance of the interviews here, they might now be feeling that they missed a trick.