‘Blackfish’ uses the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 as a way to investigate the effects of captivity on Killer Whales. Brancheau was killed by a whale she was responsible for, Tilikum, in a seemingly random act of aggression on the whale’s behalf. It soon comes to light that the whale had likely developed a form of psychosis as a result of being trapped in a small pool for most of its life, and we also learn that this wasn’t the first time Tilikum had killed a trainer, let alone shown signs of violent behaviour.
Upon second viewing this is no less shocking, on the contrary, it allows the intricate details surrounding the events to sink in even further. The sheer naivety and incompetence that led to multiple deaths is astounding.
The film manages to to sympathise with the trainers as well as the whales by painting the theme park management as the ‘culprits’. The lack of direct input from SeaWorld is understandable (everyone is a ‘former trainer’ or ‘former manager’), but it still hurts the documentary to some extent. Something to at least make us feel like they tried to sympathise with the ‘other side’ would have been nice.
Still, this serves as a highly effective and chilling retelling of events, as well as a cautionary tale. It’s easy to judge this kind of behaviour, but by interviewing people who were directly involved with the whales (and worked with the trainers who were killed), Cowperthwaite cleverly reminds us how easy it is for anyone to get caught up in a situation like this.