Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Blackfish

The screen is dark the date February 24, 2010, flashes up briefly followed by crackling then a panicked voice is heard over the telephone line. There has been an accident at Sea World. One of the trainers has been injured severely help is needed right away. The trainer in question Dawn Brancheau had been  dragged into the water by Killer Whale Tilikum .

To find out the reasons for the occurrence Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes us back to the past to learn the background of Killer Whales in captivity and by extension the story of Tilikum starting with the 1970 Killer Whale capture in Puget Sound Washington. The Orcas were chased by boat and helicopter each group having their own tactics for and to avoid capture. The hunters eventually honed in on the mothers and children.  The young whales being the ultimate targets.

Next the scene shifts to the Norwegian Sea off the East coast of Iceland for footage of the 1983 capture of a then 3 year old Tilikum.  The documentary continues to build Tilikum's history detailing his time at Sealand a park near Victoria B.C. where he spent three quarters of the day in a 20-30 unlit steel box with two larger female whales that bit and poked at him constantly.

It was at Sealand where Tilikum had his first serious incident with a trainer. A former Sealand trainer and two eye witnesses of tell the story of the February 21, 1991, death of trainer Keltie Byrne who lost her footing and fell into the tank with the whales. She was passed back and forth between the whales and eventually drowned. The trainer and witnesses are visibly upset as they present the facts of the case. Shortly after the incident the park shut down Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld.

The Documentary is full of first party accounts from former SeaWorld employees on the conditions at the park, the near misses and the aftermath of the Dawn Brancheau incident. The Trainers are all at first thrilled to have worked at Seaworld describing it as their dream job. However as they see how the Orca's are treated, the fact that they often do not get along and how the company line on their lives differ drastically from similar animals in the wild they change their minds. Contrary to Sea World jargon it is not normal for a Killer Whale to have a collapsed dorsal fin. Killer Whales do not live for 25-30 years as described by Sea World staff but instead in the wild the males can live to 60 and the females to 100.

The most fascinating aspects of the piece are the motion capture recordings of incidents and close escapes.  The most dramatic being the 2006 near drowning attack on trainer Ken Peters by killer whale Kasatka. A chilling piece of video that shows Kasatka holding one of Peters' feet in her mouth then repeatedly bringing him down under the water until he is able to calm the whale down and swim to safety. The response of the trainers to these incidents is even more incredible. They are not panicked or slowly realizing that they are about to die. Rather they are upset at the Orca thinking why are you doing this I thought we had a relationship.  More likely as some of the former SeaWorld employees have now come to realize the whales were just doing as directed to get fish knowing if they did not they would not get fed.

Blackfish is a well presented piece that provides accounts from park staff, whale experts and safety experts on the marine park industry. This is a multi billion dollar industry that is based on animals in unnatural living environments and the work of trainers who are unaware or blind to the dangers they face on a daily basis. It's a film that I can definitely recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4.

Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | U.S.A. | 83 Minutes.

Hot Docs Film Festival 2013.

Tags: Killer Whale, Orca, Sea World, Whale Human Attack, Animal Cruelty, Whale Hunting.

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