A scene from Blackfish, the story of captive orca whale Tilikum.

Monday movies: Blackfish

Tracking a killer

By Robert Moyes

It’s not often that Victoria is associated with a notorious serial killer, but that disturbing fact comes up early in the American documentary Blackfish. This powerful film details the story of Tilikum, a captive Orca that for years has been a star attraction at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida despite having killed three people. (Longtime locals will remember the tragic death in 1991 of trainer Keltie Byrne, who became Tilikum’s first victim when she slipped and fell into the whale pool at Oak Bay’s long-defunct Sealand of the Pacific.) That all these deaths have been grossly minimized and misrepresented to protect the family-friendly image of the hugely valuable SeaWorld brand is central to this film, which offers a harsh indictment of an industry that enslaves highly intelligent sea mammals – quite possibly driving them mad in the process.

The core of the documentary involves a court case stemming from the death of Dawn Brancheau, a senior trainer at SeaWorld who was mauled by Tilikum in 2010. Film director Gabriela Cowperthwaite approaches the subject gradually, introducing us to a half-dozen ex-trainers whose comments are intercut with the history of Orcas in captivity. Of course, Tilikum isn’t the real villain of this story. That would be SeaWorld, whose creepy management style is revealed in a damning anecdote about how Tilikum’s murderous history was well known to SeaWorld’s bosses, but kept a secret from the trainers who worked in dangerous proximity to the five-ton mammal.

Blackfish eloquently portrays the charisma of Orcas and the bond between whale and trainer. “You form a very personal relationship,” says one, as we view incredible footage of wetsuit-clad

trainers hugging their charges on the “slideouts” at the edge of the pool, or doing stunts like riding on their backs. We learn that there are no recorded instances of Orcas attacking humans in the wild – and over 70 whale-trainer incidents that were either unscripted “rough play” or something much nastier that resulted in injury and sometimes death. Your heart may come close to stopping while watching footage of one such attack that goes on and on for two terrifying minutes.

Ultimately, this is all about money – billions of dollars of it. Whether it’s how management initially tried to blame Brancheau for her own death – only backing off when eye witness statements directly contradicted them – or the callous ways they inflict profound emotional damage on Orcas by breeding them and then separating mother and calf, it is all too easy to recognize the deceit and bullying of a self-interested business with a fortune to lose.

BLACKFISH ****

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Produced by Manny Oteyza

Blackfish runs from Sept. 25-Oct. 5 at UVic’s Cinecenta.

COMING SOON:

Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks looks great in the trailer for this true-life story about a cargo ship captain who has a run-in with present-day pirates in the Indian Ocean. Directed by Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy, United 93).

Gravity

Sandra Bullock has wowed critics with her performance in this gripping drama about a space-station staffer who has an accident that sends her drifting alone and terrified through the empty vastness of space.

Carrie

Stephen King’s horror classic gets a remake at the hands of Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry). Chloe Grace Moretz plays the shy high school outcast, while Julianne Moore is her religiously obsessed mom.

Romeo and Juliet

A talented cast tackles this Shakespeare classic in an adaptation by novelist Julian Fellowes. You know, the guy who created a little TV thingee called Downton Abbey.

 

 

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