Blackfish review (Sheffield Doc/Fest)

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: A horrifying, heartbreaking eye-opener about human inhumanity to other intelligent and emotional beings who share our planet.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am convinced of the higher intelligence of marine mammals
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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This is fact: When we kidnap human beings in infanthood, raise them in captivity, and force them to work for their supper, this is called slavery. When the imprisoned and enslaved fight back and hurt or kill their captors, we don’t see that as anything unexpected, or a crime.

This is fact: SeaWorld has, for four decades, kidnapped intelligent, emotional, social beings away from their mothers in infanthood, held them in inhumane conditions that include sensory deprivation and immobilization, deliberately turned them against their fellow captees, tortured them, withheld food from them as punishment, and forced them to perform “tricks” for the entertainment of paying audiences kept ignorant about the conditions these beings are kept in.

This is fact: Tilikum, who was captured in the wild at the age of approximately two, is a 32-year-old orca who has been involved in the deaths of three people. There have been numerous additional “accidents” between orcas and humans that did not result in anyone’s death that SeaWorld does not want you to know about, and these “accidents” are not about trainers making mistakes.

This is fact: Orcas have never been known to hurt humans or seriously hurt other orcas in the wild.

This is Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s horrific, heartbreaking documentary Blackfish. It is justice for Tilikum, who has surely been driven insane or psychotic by years of abuse at the hands of human beings. It is justice for experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau, the most recent of Tilikum’s victims, whom SeaWorld blamed for her own death at Tilikum’s hands (fins?). Cowperthwaite interviews former SeaWorld trainers to underscore how they receive almost no training or preparation before entering pools with large, dangerous, smart creatures who are far from their natural environment and social support. (This is fact: SeaWorld won’t hire anyone to be a trainer who actually knows anything about orcas in the wild.) Cowperthwaite shares video of SeaWorld employees telling visitors outright lies about orca biology — like how they live longer in captivity than in the wild, which is utterly false — because lies are what SeaWorld has given the trainers to say.

This is fact: I am ashamed that I ever visited SeaWorld. It was many years ago, and I was ignorant. I will never do so again.

“When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home,” one former trainer says here of the orcas. A hunter who used to kidnap orca babies from the ocean says that it is “the worst thing that I’ve ever done.” Science says orcas have emotional lives and a sense of self, perhaps even beyond our own, a function of how they interact with other orcas in the wild — they may have a sense of community that exceeds our own.

This is fact: This movie will break your heart. Like how smart, desperate orcas in the wild will attempt to trick human hunters, adults without babies trying to draw the hunters away. Like what a mother orca in a pool will do when her baby is taken away — oh my god, the pain on display is bloodcurdling.

This is us. This is what humans do. We are monsters. I hate us after this movie.

This is my opinion, and not anything that Cowperthwaite says in Blackfish, but I don’t see how there is any other conclusion that can be drawn. That flopped-over top fin on captive orcas


is not normal. It is not healthy. It is a sign of distress, of pain, of subjugation. And we should see it the same way we see photos of naked shaved-headed people in Auschwitz,


as a symptom of inhumane barbarism, of humanity being the worst that it can be.

Basically: Fuck SeaWorld. They put humans in mortal danger and enslave thinking, feeling beings. For money.

(SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for this film.)

It’s said that all that is required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. But in this case, doing nothing is a good start. Do not patronize SeaWorld. If we stop showing up to see orcas doing degrading tricks for us, SeaWorld will stop putting on their cruel circus.

viewed during the 20th Sheffield Doc/Fest

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Fri, Jul 26, 2013 12:53am

Next step…going vegan.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  OnceJolly
Fri, Jul 26, 2013 8:23am

I am an unapologetic carnivore, but there’s a world a difference between raising animals humanely for food (not that we do that all that well all the time) and keeping intelligent, social beings in inhumane captivity for no reason except *our* entertainment.

The scientific evidence does seem to be trending toward marine mammals being *very* intelligent, and certainly they are very dependent on their social ties. I don’t think anyone would pay to see enslaved human people forced to do circus tricks for our amusement. I do think we should see what SeaWord does with orcas as very much the same thing. (Probably captive dolphins are not a good idea either. Sea lions and seals, by all reports I’ve seen, seem to do well in captivity and apparently do enjoy learning and doing tricks, but they’re probably more comparable to dogs than humans on intelligence scales.)

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 26, 2013 2:48pm

I’m not vegan, but I think they do raise valid questions about whether raising animals for food is necessary. And even if some meat consumption was necessary, the question remains whether the levels of consumption seen in the “developed” world are justified, given the underlying levels of suffering and death. Our dietary choices are often driven in part by “enjoyment,” which doesn’t strike me as so different from “entertainment” as a motive.

I don’t find the Auschwitz comparison particularly compelling. Other than some aspect of “othering” (which I think you’re also doing in your justification of meat consumption), both the scale and intent are somewhat different between the two.

reply to  OnceJolly
Fri, Jul 26, 2013 9:03pm

People are designed to eat meat and have been doing so for millions of years. The fact that I’m sitting here typing this and not still up in a tree on the savannah eating fruit is proof of that. I’m sick of that vegan argument! I do agree that it should be done as humanely as possible and don’t at all consume or support factory-farmed meat. but the idea that only vegans can lay claim to compassion for animals or that it’s the vegans who hold the key to the future of the human race (it’s interesting that there has never been a vegan culture in our history as a species; this is strictly a modern phenomenon) is absurd and false, and I’m OVER IT! great review, btw.

reply to  LC
Fri, Jul 26, 2013 10:37pm

Are you making a claim from an “intelligent design” perspective? Otherwise, I’m not sure how you’re using the word “design.” There’s no question that we’re capable of eating meat, but whether we require it to be healthy, and if so, what the optimal levels are, is an empirical question. IIRC, average consumption in the US is somewhere around 200 lbs per annum, which I suspect exceeds any such requirements that might exist.

reply to  LC
Fri, Jul 26, 2013 11:03pm

You seem to be arguing with people over at some other website, rather than responding to anything that was said here. No one on this site claimed that vegans are more compassionate than other people, for example.

I also think it’s puzzling to argue that because something has never been done before, it must be impossible.

Fri, Jul 26, 2013 12:01pm

Seems to me there are two things here: the possibility (likelihood) of marine mammal intelligence, and the policies of Sea World, which as described would be fairly severely dodgy even if the marine mammals were unambiguously unintelligent (call it Snail World, perhaps). I hope the latter doesn’t get eclipsed by people arguing against the former.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Jul 26, 2013 12:52pm

But the smarter, more emotional, and more social a creature is, the harder captivity is on them. So they’re connected.

Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
Fri, Jul 26, 2013 2:37pm

SeaWorld seems to be doing it’s damndest to stop this (and by this, I mean the documentary, not their practices):

Neytiri Tskaha
Neytiri Tskaha
Sat, Jul 27, 2013 10:20am

Brilliant, agree and thank you!

Rebecca Dalmas
Rebecca Dalmas
Thu, Nov 14, 2013 2:26pm

I agree and thanks MJ for the review.
There is an incredibly depressing polar bear exhibit near us. We have seen it several times, it’s part of a place that is both zoo and botanical garden. The bear is doing the exact thing every single time: pacing. It takes about 6 to 8 steps to cross the path, there’s also a little ledge he noses onto, but then he backs up and repeats. Except the last time we were there the exhibit was under construction. I hope that means he will get a bigger enclosure.