Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: "Blackfish" is a Powerful, Striking Look at Orca Whales in Captivity

One of the most talked about documentaries of 2013 remains director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish: a horrific look at the maintenance and care that goes into taking care of the orca whales at various sea parks. Throughout the decades, these majestic creatures have inspired awe and splashed their share of audiences. Yet there is an even more haunting truth behind these performing sea life animals. They aren't always the friendliest of creatures and rarely kill their trainers. It is a horrific truth that becomes the center of one of the strongest documentaries of the year.

This isn't entirely an expose decrying Sea World, though it is the target, as their main male whale Tilikum has become something of notoriety. He is an aggressive mammal that is mostly kept around for the sake of his insemination being highly profitable. While this raises more questions regarding the birth of more violent babies, Tilikum remains at the center of debates for most of the story as things becoming increasingly dark. 

With footage of trainers getting mauled mixed with former trainers, the story becomes even more haunting. Due to primitive scientific understanding initially, former trainers regale how their ignorance looks foolish. Claiming to understand a mammal that was used to entertain and only discovering afterwards the dark history that comes with the trade. Every day is a risk and there's a good chance that they will kill you if given the chance. Nobody is entirely sure when that will be, but it only makes the footage more haunting.

Blackfish doesn't attempt to humanize the orcas, but more to make us understand their psychology. Outside of sea parks like Sea World, the whales roam the ocean with friendly nature. Inside the parks, mothers and children are separated, causing the whales to perform in more tragic nature, often calling for their children incessantly. Through the progression of the story, the real horror isn't so much that humans get killed, but more that humans have forever altered their world. Once perceived to be nice, the orcas are now rebellious even in nature if their kin are separated.

Moral questions are raised, but most of all, it paints a tragic vision of a world initially seen as being full of laughter. The whales aren't humanized, but they become sympathized beasts that suffer at the hand of man. Even the former trainers who are interviewed are full of regret and the vicious cycle to stop incidents like this from happening are taken to court, only to pass off these deaths as accidents. 

Blackfish is successful in not only making you understand the issue, but also in proving why this continues to be a problem. While one subject argues that sea parks are positive and influence interest in aquatic life for the future, it is mostly just a cry for change. One that is visually striking and full of horrific footage. It explores how we relate to marine life and the effects of tampering with the environment. It has the power to invigorate and change perspectives. Most of all, it is a striking documentary that will hopefully influence social change over time.

I will admit upfront that I am not well versed in the realm of documentaries. I have seen plenty that simply inform, but I do feel like others have the power to be something more. Blackfish may be one of the most powerful cinematic experiences that I have had in 2013 mostly because it proves just how much reality is stranger than fiction. It may be somewhat biased and powerful towards emotion, but the logic behind all of it is justified. These are living creatures and they have slowly become monsters for our entertainment. It is sad and opened my eyes.

With that said, I am aware of the popularity of the documentary for the past few months, but have been slow to come to it. When I finally did, I learned so much about orca whales to the point that every second of footage felt like a revelation. The idea that innocent, uninformed humans are dying due to scientific ignorance is baffling. Even if it just me who had an overtly emotional response to the footage, I feel that is the sign of a powerful, persuasive documentary. 

That is why upon looking back at the documentary post I wrote a few weeks back, I can see why this has made the short list. While I know that The Act of Killing is far and away more acclaimed, I feel like this is appealing more to the populous and therefore could stand more of a chance of winning. This is evident in last year's winner being Searching for Sugar Man over military rape in The Invisible War and the AIDS epidemic in How to Survive a Plague. While Blackfish is more morose than searching for a singer, it has been one of the few consistently in discussion, and that alone is a triumph.

Of course, to very little surprise, it is looking to be the front runner so far. According to statistics website Gold Derby,  the film is leading the Best Documentary race with odds of 10:3. The Act of Killing aptly follows in second with odds of 7:2. It is still a close race and the decisions haven't been made yet. However, with both being considerable high points in discussion and end of the year best of lists, it is doubtful that they won't make the final cut. It is just great that in a year like this that documentaries have lost some astigmatism and are being talked about in nature similar to that of regular movies. Even Gold Derby's third place Stories We Tell is tied with second place with odds of 7:2. While I didn't care for Sarah Polley's family narrative, it just proves my point in terms of popularity.

Blackfish will hopefully slowly become a document for change. It definitely has the power to do just that. The images that are shown will likely be stuck with you for awhile. Even just looking at the facts, it is a terrifying vision of what happens in terms of exploiting animals. It makes me sympathize with the orcas and long to be them seen set free. Hopefully that will happen sooner than later.

Will Blackfish get nominated in the Best Documentary category? Is the material strong enough to evoke change? Does popularity guarantee a better chance of recognition at the Oscars?

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