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Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Call me Ishmael…

This is a review of Blackfish (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

7 August (update in 2017, on the death of Tilikum)

This is a review of Blackfish (2013)

* Contains a wealth of spoilers - and is immensely long at 2,200 words !*


We were told that onshore fishermen call orcas (otherwise known as killer whales) blackfish*, and this term gives this 2013 Dogwoof film its title.

In fact, orcas, although largely black, are also white, and this film has a mixture of light and shadow, although, as far as the construction is concerned, it does steer us to put the SeaWorld organization (one which declined to contribute to the film, despite ‘repeated requests’) in the Tenth Circle of Dante’s Inferno : Blackfish (2013) could scarcely close with footage of four of the main former SeaWorld trainers putting out from land to see orcas in the wild without endorsing their message that that is where they belong and, accordingly, where they behave non-aggressively.

However, these are the same people who, by and large, say how a visit to a show at one of the organization’s sites (or that of some similar operator) inspired them to do what they did, become trainers. Bewilderingly, one of them queries to camera, as if it were strange, why the organization did not tell them of the 70 or so incidents involving trainers being wounded or even killed with the involvement of orcas, as if it were likely to have done so and successfully recruited her.

The organization is then pitted against the former employees, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (unhelpfully referred to by pronouncing the initials OHSA with American accents, but without saying what they stand for), a neuroscientist (who tells us that orcas’ brains have parts that even human ones lack, which indicate a capacity for highly emotive responses), and others who have studied orca behaviour at sea.

It would seem to be a question of whom we believe, but it is more loaded than that, because Kelly Clark, the organization’s head trainer (represented by outline in a stylized court-room, since OHSA had sued SeaWorld), is reported as having likened orcas as being as capable of attacking humans as all men are of committing rape, and similar selected infelicities (the judge had this one struck from the record, so clearly someone had been in court).

Two questions arise : does the US justice system have a notion of sub judice that makes a matter not fair game for comment until all appeals have been exhausted – and what does it mean to strike something from the record, if a documentary can then include it ? In essence, whatever the answers are, the film-makers are clearly not unbiased, to my mind.

Those who haunt the cinema may also recall Rust and Bone (2012), and might, with me, wonder whether the phoniness of what one of the former trainers called an ‘industry’ might not have been patent from it : the false confidence that the orcas like doing – or want to do – what they are trained to do, the assumption that a bond has been built between creature and trainer that mitigates the risk of attack, and the staged, circus-ring nature of the show.

Stéphanie (played by Marion Cotillard) loses the lower part of her legs, and that film does not dwell on the how so much as the what, and on how her life develops : a major feature that has the same theme, and not so much as a mention. However, the makers of Blackfish also do not seem to have considered how much showing a catalogue of incident after incident from contemporaneous footage could harrow the audience :

Therefore, in a sense, this approach seemed as inhumane to those viewers who might not have wanted to see all this as the claimed training methods of SeaWorld were to the captive orcas, not to speak of domestic arrangements at times when the sites are closed. This documentary proof of what happened might be far more relevant to OHSA’s legal action (and one trusts that it was available to OHSA) than to our appreciation of the issues – after the point had been established, by waving a list and showing some real examples, I certainly did not need to see more people being maimed or killed, and rather resented seeing it.

I resented it, because (as is evident) the orcas had a right to their freedom before they were netted and transported, and the people in these clips had a right to respect for what happened to them in the moment of their wounding (or worse). Screening the clips was no doubt done with the consent of relatives, keen to publicize what had happened, but the line between showing enough and too much is not really that fine, and I am sure that Blackfish was on the wrong side of it.

Couple the fact that the narrative of the film left relatively opaque why we were making a call to The Canaries regarding another orca set-up, Loro Parque, and the seemingly avoidable death of another trainer, and I struggled to see why, beyond piling up the viewing misery*, we needed to know that orcas had been transported there from the States**. The effect was really to question the integrity of Clark, because the court-reporting format had her disowning in her evidence that SeaWorld had links with Loro Parque.

Overall, I found the messages that the documentary gave were sometimes confused. These, however, were clear :

1. That the wisdom that visitors to Orlando and like places receive is to the tune that orcas live longer in captivity (we were given three or more sound-bites of staff saying this), whereas the film advanced evidence that they have a human lifespan at sea, double the number of years being said on video.

2. Likewise, they (and some of the staff) are told that the orcas that they see are related to each other, and it is stressed how positive everything is in terms of orcas’ relations between each other and with the trainers, but the documentary challenged this. With both of these points, there was no doubt that it seemed to have been established that SeaWorld misrepresented the facts, because trainers stated that orcas were moved from one SeaWorld centre to another, and that it had acquired orcas (including Tilikum, the large male (or bull orca) who had brought about the death of Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in 2011 and which led to court action) from a park run by Sealand when it closed.

3. As to training methods, the trainers (though, of course, SeaWorld might well claim that they had an axe to grind) told us that food deprivation was used, not just in the sense that there would only be a reward if a task were performed right (and, hence, not if not), but by way of making the orcas docile enough to go to their overnight tanks by only feeding them afterwards.

We were told about, and shown shots, of the tanks at the Sealand venue from which Tilikum came, which were grim in themselves, and not just for how long the orcas were kept with no space or stimulation overnight : the whole venue, as given to us in image and word, was cramped. Loro Parque and the SeaWorld park at Orlando were better, but (from that starting-point) it would not have been difficult for them to be better.

Where the confusion set in arises from these presented facts :

1. There had been a fatal incident at the Sealand park that involved Tilikum and a man whose naked body was found (please see below).

2. Relatively little was known to the trainers and other staff who would be working with Tilikum at SeaWorld. (As I have already said, one trainer thought that a place such as SeaWorld would actually tell her about difficulties, incidents, injuries or deaths at the outset.)

3. One of the experts whom we saw said that the conditions at Sealand, let alone the fact that Tilikum was being bullied and lacerated by two females (apparently, orcas have matriarchal communities), could have made him, as he put it, ‘psychotic’. What has to be borne in mind is that the usage of the word in the States means, not delusional (as used by psychiatry and its patients in the UK), but psychopathic – for a film shown around the globe, that should have been clarified somehow, as there is a world of difference between someone being in a delusional state and being a psychopath.

In essence, someone is almost (at some point) by definition dangerous if he or she is a psychopath, whereas a person experiencing psychosis by no means need not be, and might not be having any more than a temporary episode (because medication and / or the natural course of the psychosis brings it to an end).

4. The film then – with no obvious linkage, or recognition of the contradiction – showed how many orcas Tilikum had fathered (by artificial insemination). Obviously, as he is a very big orca (accordingly impressive and likely to pull the crowds), SeaWorld would want to try to pass on genes that had led to his size (nothing told us whether it had succeeded in this aspect of its breeding programme).

The flaw is : if one wants to say that Tilikum’s alleged psychopathology resulted from treatment at the hands of humans and fellow orcas, how could that possibly be a heritable characteristic ? At best, a heritable disposition, if treated in that way, to develop psychologically in the way ascribed to him – as we really do not know these things (i.e. the genetic role and its significance) very well in humans.

The state of UK mental-health services and how they are funded and run apart, all a bit tenuous as a concern about SeaWorld’s approach to breeding…

5. Trainers said several times that there was a sort of get back in the water attitude to any incident or injury (which is sort of consistent with not being told about fatalities – or their not seeking to find out, if they believed what they were told). They at least implied that they feared for their jobs, if they did not.

Frankly, a bit inconsistent with one trainer saying that he wanted to leave, but that he feared for what would happen to Tilikum, if he did. Either people are queuing up to be trainers (perhaps because they saw a show in their youth, and longed to do it when adult) – or they are not, and who could possibly replace Trainer X, unless Trainer X mistakenly conceives that no one else can do the job.

The main thing that I was left with was not the fact that (self evidently) orcas belong in the wild, and that the level of training takes them far beyond the caged drudgery of most zoos to being money-making big performers / attractions, by drenching a pleased audience with their vigorous tail, but by the pervading feeling of naivety.

If you look at the Loro Parque entry, it reports that there have been 40 million visitors, i.e. more than half of the UK’s population : how much can many of these people have been bothered to think about the orcas or their care or well-being ?

With respect to the former trainers, for some reason both they and the OHSA seemed to believe a story that said that the man had brought about his own death by stripping off to be in the water with the orcas : I cannot now give the story the twist that somehow blamed the man, because it has been lost to me in all the other material. However, nothing seems to suggest that this death, or the catalogue of other near-misses, injuries or deaths, was taken seriously.

Is it really so easy just to claim, as was done, that Dawn Brancheau should not have had her pony-tail down (but up in a bun) and / or that what she was doing with the orca in question led to her being pulled to the bottom – and therefore that all that ensued was her fault ? Seemingly not, given the case that the OHSA has brought (and which SeaWorld is seeking to appeal). However, from what I gather, it appears that whoever is the equivalent of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the RSPCA (the American Humane Association ?), and coroners / district attorneys have not been strikingly assiduous in the past.

For why did it take a fatality as recently as two years ago to bring about the present ruling (being appealed) that trainers in the water are to be separated from, and not in contact with, the orcas ? I have no idea of the OHSA’s remit, but a loss of a limb (as in Rust and Bone) is an unacceptable workplace injury, whereas the film leaves me with no notion of criminal investigations, proceedings and penalties. Maybe the OHSA case has to precede all that, maybe not.

In conclusion, the film has actually left more significant questions open than it has answered – an elephant, a parrot, an orca must be better off where they were brought from, and, even if bred from, they are bred without liberty, so I have no doubt that any creature that will get 40 million visitors through the door is bound to be exploited. Those visitors are possibly too complacent with their holiday memories and their own wish-fulfilment dreams of swimming with orcas (or dolphins – nothing against dolphins !) to notice a film like Blackfish, certainly in the cinema, I would suspect.

As to why nothing seems to have been done before (nothing is reported in the film), again I just do not know. Yet I am actually quite disappointed with employees who were told stories, did not think to question them (even when they could see how these orcas lived, and could imagine their hurt, if they really felt that they had a personal bond with them), and who may not have spoken out at the right time.

I simply cannot tell whether they did, because the featured ones were shown on the media and seemed to be in relation to the OHSA court case. Then again, I have no idea – and they, cannily, did not say – what forces might have been brought to bear if, at any other point, they had put their head above the parapet. That said, having watched another Dogwoof film, Fredrik Gertten’s Big Boys Gone Bananas (2011)***, I can imagine that it might tell those who cannot guess…


* A seaman had earlier on told us how very shocked he was when young orcas had been separated from their mothers, and he and two others had to deal with the remains of three whales that had been killed in the operation, which he said had been illegal.

** The Wikipedia® item for Loro Parque talks about this, and what it says the status of the orcas is. Such transportation, if the trainers and Wikipedia® are right, is also scarcely in accord with the notion that the orcas in shows are an organic community.

*** At Cambridge Film Festival 2012, the documentary voted best film by audiences.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)


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