At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the new documentary Blackfish is turning heads with its revealing look at the marine mammal captivity industry – just like The Cove did three years ago.
The film sets the stage with the story of Tilikum, a captive orca at SeaWorld Orlando who killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010, and then expands out into the larger issue of the way marine mammals are treated in the entertainment industry, especially by big corporations like SeaWorld.
Part of the effectiveness of Blackfish is its reliance on well-substantiated scientific data from the Kimmela Center (I had the privilege of being interviewed in the film) about orca intelligence, which explain so much about why orca captures and confinement are so devastating to their psychological and physical health.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite wants the audience to understand just how intelligent, sensitive and self-aware these animals are.
Besides their sheer size, orca brains are extraordinarily developed in the neocortex and the limbic cortex, which are involved in complex thinking and emotions in all mammals. And director Gabriela Cowperthwaite wants the audience to understand just how intelligent, sensitive and self-aware these animals are.
“The evidence suggests orcas actually feel more than us,” she said in one interview.
The film shows how orcas like Tilikum, who have been separated from their mother during capture or transfer from one marine park to another, experience extensive emotional trauma, and how these psychological disturbances are related to the abnormal aggressive behaviors they exhibit toward their trainers. Cowperthwaite emphasizes that while there is no record of a wild orca having ever killed or severely injured a human being, there is now a large and growing list of trainers and other people who have been killed and injured by orcas in captivity.
Blackfish comes on the heels of the best-selling book Death At SeaWorld by David Kirby which revealed the dark side of SeaWorld. Taken altogether, the science and the anecdotal evidence are a resounding indictment of the orca theme park industry.
The rights to Blackfish were recently acquired by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Worldwide. Magnolia plans a summer theatrical release, and CNN will premier its domestic broadcast towards the end of 2013. Perhaps, along with the rave reviews from critics at Sundance, and the overwhelming scientific support, Blackfish will bring us closer than ever to ending the nightmare that is orca captivity once and for all.