Blackfish And The Oscars: This Documentary Is Nothing But A Sensationalist Thriller


Annual Academy Awards nominations came out this morning and one film was excluded that a handful of animal rights activists and film buffs are bound to take personally. On the surface Gabriella Cowperthwaite’s documentary “Blackfish” – about an emotionally disturbed serial killing killer whale at Sea World – is a glaring omission. It was one of the most talked about documentaries of the year, touted and talked up by Netflix-watching animal rights activists everywhere. And it would be an egregious snub, except “Blackfish” doesn’t deserve to be in the running.

Documentary filmmaking is one of the most misunderstood popular art forms, and it’s impossible to have a discussion about “Blackfish” without first getting a couple of things out of the way. It’s not a documentary’s job to tell the truth. That may seem deceptive and downright dishonest, but the filmmaker at the helm considers it his or her responsibility to make an engaging film, not expose the truth. Documentary films are not journalism.

This doesn’t mean documentary filmmakers are bad people, or that they aren’t passionate about the subjects they cover. Werner Herzog, one of the best documentary filmmakers alive today, says “There’s the artist’s truth and the accountant’s truth.” It doesn’t diminish his ability as a filmmaker that he’s loosey-goosey with his facts. He never signed on to the standards of journalistic integrity. He set out to make good films.

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who watch a documentary and use it as the basis for their viewpoint. That’s like watching “Die Hard” and accepting the film’s stance on terrorism.

“Blackfish” is about an incredibly intriguing subject and there’s a lot in it worth making a film about. Cowperthwaite, the director, set out to chronicle the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into the death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau. She was killed by Tilikum, one of the park’s male killer whales and the largest orca in captivity. The plot thickens when Tilikum, it turns out, had previously been involved in the deaths of two other people. He has a heartbreaking story, and from that starting point the film backpedals to examine the whale’s psychological state, and how orcas have been captured and treated in captivity over the last 40 years.

But “Blackfish” does not do a good job of putting it all together. It jumps around, it drags, it contradicts itself. It cut a mean trailer that makes it look like the thriller of the year, and there’s some unforgettable content, but as a viewing experience it feels muddled and hobbled together. It’s a flawed film, and the Academy does not reward giving an ambitious subject the ol’ college try.

Animal rights activists will take the film’s omission from the Oscars as a slight against their cause, but they’re backing the wrong whale. “Blackfish” does a good job eliciting empathy and reverence for orcas, but the film’s vendetta against Sea World is a disservice to the species. Sea World is not an evil organization. Being in captivity is not ideal for any animal, but how else can we instill respect for these creatures in future generations? 50 years ago the U.S. Navy used orcas for target practice – today every kid knows Free Willy and Shamu.

It’s easier to say “Fuck Sea World!” than it is to accept that being an orca in captivity sucks, but nothing can be done about it now. Keiko, the orca that played Free Willy and was eventually freed himself, died cold, hungry, alone after a year-long effort to get a wild pod to accept him. For an orca already in captivity I can’t think of a better place to be than Sea World.

The silver lining to Tilikum’s tragic life is that his successes with artificial insemination mean there’s no longer a need to capture orcas from the wild. But the film paints this as a sick clinical crime against the whale (Which sure, I guess it is, but I doubt it’s as hard on Tilly as it is his handlers and uh… collectors.) It’s hard to understand why the film would go out of its way to portray this practice in a negative light when it spells out, in detail, the brutality of the alternative: capturing them from the wild.

I’m happy that “Blackfish” has gotten people interested in the plight of marine mammals, but I don’t think the film is anything more than a sensationalist thriller. It has also done its subjects a disservice by obfuscating the real issues affecting the species.

If you want to help protect killer whales, develop a safer way for ships to navigate their habitats. Come up with an alternative to the sonar technologies the navy is using that leave whales, who rely on echolocation, effectively blind. Come up with a way to scrub our oceans and shores of the toxic chemicals seeping into their flesh and turning them into cancer sashimi at alarming rates.

Even if Sea World were an evil organization, they’d be a miniscule part of the problems facing the species and it would still be hard to argue they’re doing more harm than good. Without Sea World, who would give a shit?

So anyone that’s surprised “Blackfish” was excluded from the Academy Awards, or is planning on attending the protest against Sea World in San Diego on January 19th really owes it to them self to stop and think. From a filmmaking point of view it was an entertaining thriller with some bad pacing problems that couldn’t decide what its point was. From an animal rights perspective, it ultimately throws orcas under the bus so it can turn Sea World into the Big Bad Wolf for its own sense of dramatic purpose.


image – Blackfish