Controversial. Manipulative. Vindictive. The primary concern of last year’s Blackfish, a documentary examining how a captive killer whale could be allowed to kill a string of people over several decades, presents an incendiary argument that will make Dr Dolittles of even the hardiest hunters. Yet the proposition, in being as staunch and fiery as a Michael Moore trip to the NSA, threatens some greater truths lurking beneath the waters.
The Oscar-snubbed film’s tagline “Don’t capture what you can’t control” seems to give the whales at the heart of the story a deeper menace than the narrative allows them to possess. Archive footage of their capture, which we are told they desperately tried to escape, and mathematical details of their cells, humanize their tragedy with overt parallels. One whale, which monster movie lore tells us is one of the biggest whales of all, is dubbed Tilikum by its captors and despite killing three people over the course of the story, he is the director’s muse and the catalyst for debate.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, having come from no animal rights background, is drawn to his story after the final death was attributed to the trainer’s ponytail causing some fatal confusion. Eye witness accounts, we are told, offer that the trainer was instead pulled under by her arm as another in a sequence of Ripper-esque murders. Demonized and accused of murder, Seaworld as Tilikum’s owners are prosecuted by the narrative investigation as the director asks how the animal’s clear psychosis can be allowed to continue in captivity; the Finding Nemo Disney-freedom only a stone’s throw away.
Interviewing former trainers, all of whom we assume saw the righteous light and now appear before us begging with embarrassment, Cowperthwaite builds the argument to frightening conclusion. Akin to the moment in Aliens, the radar becoming swamped by ominous blips, we are told that Tilikum has been bred; his whale offspring presumably lurking around every corner and in every alleyway. He also still performs regularly at the aquatic-Jurassic Park; Jaws is ready to strike again.
Seaworld repeatedly declined to take part in this film, we are told and so the argument in merely being presented is resolved in the eyes of the audience. Seaworld are of course inexcusably guilty and footage of their representatives leaving a courtroom looking dishonourably self-satisfied can only be some pantomime victory march. Despite then, Seaworld releasing a film in direct response countering many of the film’s bold assertions; and despite many of those involved accusing the director of manipulating their interviews to a different end; the case is rested as the credits roll.
This is the marvellous danger of documentary, a medium so inextricably linked to fiction that even by considering portraying the facts it must distort them. By turning her camera on the subject, for as much as she professes to be neutral, the director has injected opinion to what should, but obviously can’t, be objective. Seaworld, which are represented by a series of nauseating promos, humanize the whales to foolish endeavour. They are after all killers. Yet Cowperthwaite does much the same and in one Brass Eye-esque interview, an apparently baffled scientist informs us that whales actually have an extra part of the brain that means they can feel extra emotions. The tragedy floods the cinema to overwhelming effect. But are the waters we are treading in shallower than they seem?
“Don’t capture what you can’t control.” It’s impossible to decide upon the true importance of a documentary like Blackfish, at least in terms of its proximity to its facts. While there is much now to debate about whales and their freedom, although the director would apparently have it that this is the whole issue finalized and they should be free before the audience are of the cinema, there is a greater argument at stake. Can a documentary create such a condition of manipulations to influence an audience that it still holds some resounding truth? Or is its argument undone by the efforts gone to impress dramatically? One message prevails; this is no Free Willy.