An unforgettable 911 call in which a shocked observer explains that "a whale has eaten one of the trainers" opens Blackfish, a chilling documentary by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite about young people, killer whales (or orcas) and the entertainment companies that exploit both for profit. Cowperthwaite found her way to this subject through a short newspaper item about the "accidental" death of an experienced and widely admired orca trainer named Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. in 2010. The filmmaker sensed that something was amiss but did not go looking for an inflammatory expose. Cowperthwaite thought she'd make a documentary about how humans and animals relate, but she found a story of corporate malfeasance so compelling and complete that the only mystery it leaves unsolved is why no one managed to tell this story before now.
The relationships that develop between killer whales and their trainers play a role in Blackfish, but this is not the story of marine biologists and their research subjects. The trainers that work at entertainment parks featuring orcas performing tricks are hired for their swimming ability, good looks and willingness to follow orders. The real problem with these facilities is that they exist at all.
Blackfish spends much of its time on a killer whale named Tilikum, who was wrenched from its pod of ocean-bound mammals and shuttled around the continent on trucks. The film shows the floating metal box in which Tilikum spent two-thirds of each day during his early life at a small and now-shuttered Canadian park called Sealand of the Pacific. The systematic abuse and traumatization of Tilikum and numerous other killer whales has led directly to 40 years' worth of fatal and near-fatal incidents with trainers at marine parks.
There's no evidence that an orca has ever attacked a human in the wild. Once you get to know these majestic animals via Blackfish, that's not hard to believe. The film's interviews with scientists reveal that orca's brains are highly developed in the area that governs emotion, which explains the species' social nature and tight-knit family structures. Because so much of the activity at SeaWorld is captured on video by audience members, trainers looking to improve their performance, and the facility itself — both on the surface of the pools and from cameras placed underwater — there's no shortage of primary source material through which Blackfish can build its case. In one astonishing sequence, an orca grabs trainer Ken Peters by the foot and repeatedly drags him to the bottom of the pool and back to the surface. Only Peters' remarkable calm and training as a scuba diver enable him to survive. Scenes like this can be hard to watch, but the most grisly attacks are not included in the film out of respect for the victims and their families.
That intentional lack of sensationalism is what makes Blackfish so convincing. Former trainers were encouraged to stick to the facts in interviews conducted for the film. Their opinions and analysis emerge quietly near the end, but Cowperthwaite carefully maintains her thoughtful and low-key approach. Sometimes the truth is enough. — KEN KORMAN