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The hit documentary Blackfish has a message as dubious as its methods

Bait and Switch

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A current hit on the arthouse circuit, Blackfish is the type of documentary that covers over its flaws in argumentation with the sort of trickery you'd expect to see in negative political campaigning: decontextualized video footage presented in slow motion, with a voiceover offering the most damning possible explanation of its meaning, while the soundtrack strikes gut-churning minor chords. Through interviews with former whale trainers, an OSHA expert with an ax to grind against Sea World, and copious video footage, the film attempts to make several cases at once while dishonestly withholding its ultimate message.

First, by focusing on the tragic death of expert Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau while working with the 12,000-point bull orca Tilikum in 2010, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and her witnesses argue that Tilikum was a violent whale, a ticking time bomb who had already racked up two prior kills. (The film practically uses obscene serial-killer psychology to discuss Tilikum, mostly for cheap dramatic effect.) Second, the film argues that whales are sufficiently intelligent that keeping them prisoner for human amusement is unethical and cruel. Third, whales are wild animals, uncontrollable and dangerous.

As braided throughout the film, these three propositions are increasingly incompatible. We are supposed to understand that orcas are both sensitive and vicious, that they cannot adapt to life around humans but must be rescued due to their immense capacity for empathy. For much of the film, Blackfish's rhetoric and argumentative structure are so muddled that there are very few things we can discern from it with certainty. We can clearly tell that its makers consider the owners of Sea World aquatic parks to be irresponsible profiteers. We can clearly tell that Blackfish is against holding whales in captivity.

But it's only in the final 10 minutes that Blackfish discloses its actual agenda. What Cowperthwaite and company hold back, as their "big reveal," is that they believe sea parks should return their current stock of whales to the oceans, either in cordoned-off "sea pens" or in a wholesale effort to reintroduce whales, wild-caught or otherwise, to their pods. At least this is what we could glean from two careful viewings, since even this take-away message remains quite muddled and inarticulate.

There are difficult issues at stake, some practical and some philosophical. For one thing, it has proven almost impossible to return orcas to the ocean after years of captivity. Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was the subject of a massive rehabilitation effort to return him to his pod in Iceland. But despite years of trainer effort, he never learned to catch live fish. (He was afraid of smelt in his sea pen, as well as local whales who came up to engage him.) He died alone, "in the wild."

However, the precise problem is that we are not dealing with creatures whose instincts override all other considerations. Whales have memory, personality, creativity ... what philosophers would call subjectivity. But this complexity means that in terms of human intervention in their lives, we cannot simply turn back the clock. We are in this. Sea World can and should do more. (Tilikum, for example, should have a large retirement tank. He is no doubt in shows again not because the company is callous but because they have nothing else to do with him.) But closing Sea World, whose overall record for animal care is exemplary, will accomplish little. Blackfish is a deeply frustrating documentary precisely because it addresses a compound tragedy — trainer deaths, whales in crisis, a dark history and an uncertain future — and poses only pat, comforting answers.

Note: Co-author Wingard worked for seven years at the aquatic park Marine World in Vallejo, Calif.



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