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Movie Review: Blackfish

July 19, 2013

Blackfish PosterBlackfish – A KinoSmith Release

Release Date: July 19th, 2013 @ TIFF Bell Lightbox

Rated PG for mature themes, not recommended for children

Running time: 83 minutes

Gabriela Cowperthwaite (dir.)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite (writer)

Eli B. Despres (writer)

Jeff Beal (music)

John Hargrove as Himself

Samantha Berg as Herself

Mark Simmons as Himself

Carol Ray as Herself

Dean Gomersall as Himself

John Jett as Himself

Dave Duffus as Himself

John Crowe as Himself

Tilikum as Himself

Dawn Brancheau as Herself (archival footage)


©KinoSmith.  All Rights Reserved.

Tilikum the whale performs in Blackfish.

Our reviews below:


Blackfish Review By John C.

*** (out of 4)

Back in 2011, trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed at Sea World, dragged underwater and mutilated by the whale she was working with, an animal named Tilikum who was clearly not doing well in the unnatural environment and had shown aggressive behaviour in the past.  What followed was a discussion that the park wasn’t ready to have about the moral injustice of keeping whales in captivity, instead blaming the trainer for wearing a pony tail.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish uses the case as a jumping off point for the issue of capturing whales for entertainment in general, showing the unfairness of keeping the animals in captivity, which can drive them to a point where they turn on their trainers.  Through interviews with activists and former employees, what the director has uncovered is a world of deceit where no lie is off limits when it comes to capturing and exploiting marine life for cheap entertainment.

Although the film is sometimes a little conventional in its approach and use of interviews, the real life footage of the attacks is shocking and suitably disturbing.  With a story that will make you think twice before going to Sea World or Marineland, Blackfish is a good documentary that asks important questions about the ethics of keeping whales in captivity.


Blackfish Review by Erin V.

***1/4 (out of 4)

I first saw this film at Hot Docs in Toronto this year.  As someone who loves whales and dolphins, it was one on my list to see right away.

Blackfish focuses on Killer Whales in captivity, and in particular an Orca named Tilikum.  Tilly was in the news back in 2011 after he dragged a trainer at Sea World under water and killed her.  The film goes back to the early days of Tilikum’s life in captivity, and also speaks of other incidents with Orcas in tanks in various amusement park environments – many more than these parks would like you to believe.  But this is not a film about animal aggression – far from it in fact.  The documentary is very much on the side of the whales and it is easy to understand their frustrations being locked in an unnatural environment for the majority of their lives.

Some of the particular strong points in the film are where we get a brief history of ‘whale-catching’ – where baby Orcas are taken from the wild and put into tanks.  Tilikum was one such whale.  Whales have intricate social structures and often remain in their own family pods their whole lives.  Another point in the film shows where babies born in captivity are taken from their mothers to be sold off or traded to other parks.  It is just considered a simple practice for breeding purposes, but it is clear that the impact it has on both mother and child whale is something that will lead to problems later on.  If you understand how whales interact in the wild, the way these whales sometimes interact with their trainers is not as surprising as you might think whether or not in the moment they mean harm from it.

Blackfish consists of old and new footage, as well as interviews with various ex-trainers for Sea World and other parks, as well as other people who have experienced facets of this industry firsthand.  For those interested in animal and environmental justice, or just love whales, this is a definite must see.  It is well made and put together.


Blackfish Review by Nicole

***1/2 (out of 4)

Blackfish is a shocking and tragic documentary about the events that led up to the mauling death of Sea World Orlando’s head trainer Dawn Brancheau.  Through interviews with former trainers, as well as found footage, we find out about the whale Tilikum’s tragic past.  The whale was illegally captured in the early 1970s.  He was kidnapped from his mother in a raid that cost three whales their lives, and sold to a tiny roadside zoo called Sealand in Victoria, BC.

At Sealand, the orcas would be starved and put in a cage if they didn’t perform their tricks.  Tilikum reacted to the trauma by mauling and killing his trainer Keltie Byrne, a former Olympic swimmer.  This incident led to Sealand’s closure, and the whales were sold to Sea World Orlando, which was considered “the best place.”  At Sea World, Tilikum was constantly bullied by the other whales.  Though he developed a bond with his trainers, since they treated him kindly.  However, captivity had taken its toll on Tilikum, and he wound up mauling and killing two other people, a homeless man in 1999 and finally Sea World head trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, after he became frustrated when he did one of his tricks “wrong.”

Blackfish is a hard film to watch.  While it never shows the actual fatal maulings, it does show a captive orca get killed by one of its inmates, with wounds shown in detail.  The film also shows footage of some of the non-lethal maulings that have resulted at Sea World.  However, Blackfish is by no means a “monster movie.”  The only monster present is the practise of keeping whales in captivity.  It’s not the whales, nor their trainers, who are at fault here.  One whale expert in the film explains that orcas have never attacked a human, or other orcas, in the wild.  Captivity turns orcas, who live with their mothers all their life, into psychotic wrecks.  One mother whale at Sea World cried for hours after her daughter was moved to another facility, a tragic case that is shown in the documentary.

The trainers themselves are not the problem either.  Once the trainers figure out how abusive captivity is, they speak out, like what is happening with Ontario’s Marineland right now.  The recent Marineland protests make this an extremely timely film.  As hard as it often is to watch, Blackfish is an important documentary that will help put an end to whales being kept in captivity.  A beautiful credits scene shows orcas in the wild, where they live healthy and happy.


Blackfish Review by Maureen

*** (out of 4)

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish makes a strong case for keeping killer whales (traditionally called Blackfish) out of captivity where they are used for entertainment at venues such as Sea World.

The film focuses on Tilikum, a captive orca who killed his experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau on February 24th, 2010 during a performance at Sea World.  The public was shocked by the trainer’s death, but as we learn in the film, former trainers, OSHA (occupational safety and health agency) staff and several experts on whales where not surprised.  Dawn was not Tilikum’s first kill.

Told through interviews with former trainers, OSHA staff and whale experts, along with archival footage of performances at Sea World and other similar organizations, Blackfish paints a picture of a creature that never should have been removed from his natural habitat in the first place.  Tilikum was simply an accident waiting to happen.

No matter what your thoughts are on organizations such as Sea World or Marineland in Niagara, Ontario, watching Blackfish really makes viewers stop and think about the ethics of keeping magnificent large creatures in an unnaturally small enclosure.  Blackfish is worth seeing, especially if you are undecided about the ethical question of keeping marine animals in captivity.


Blackfish Review by Tony

***1/2 (out of 4)

Blackfish is the respectful name given by pacific northwest first nations to the orca (aka killer whale). The documentary centres around the large male orca Tilikum, responsible over his 30 year life for three deaths, notably the Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. Since Seaworld did not cooperate in the making of the film, it relies on archival promotional and amateur clips, testimony by former employees, and since most trainers, much less scientists than attractive performers, knew no better than to follow the scripts they were given, the film has several experts citing MRI and other research to challenge the claims made by water parks about the welfare of orca in captivity compared to the wild.

In the 1970s, orca were introduced to dolphin parks, taken in the wild from their screaming mothers at a very young age. Though this practice was later banned in the state of Washington, it still goes on elsewhere, though most orca now used have been born in captivity.  Tilikum was captured near Iceland and taken to Sealand in Victoria BC where under cramped conditions he was often aggressively “raked” (scratched) by larger females. After a death there and elsewhere he ended up at Seaworld, where the trainers interviewed were warned about getting close to him but never told why.

Though primarily kept for breeding (shown in a couple of very brief but nasty clips), he quickly became a headliner doing the usual circus tricks with Brancheau that drew the crowds. Despite Seaworld’s claims of her partial fault due to a loose ponytail, her death led to government hearings that resulted in mandatory barriers–appealed by Seaworld–separating humans from orca.

Blackfish is a gripping film that is sure to get many thoughtful people out to marine parks, not as paying customers but rather as protesters. Though it may be criticized as one-sided, sometimes, as in tobacco, there really is no legitimate counterargument outside corporate greed. Seaworld and its counterparts have only themselves to blame, having stonewalled all these years. Only this week as the film is about to open wide, they have come out with a condemnation of the film, most of whose eight points have already been successfully dismissed by the filmmakers and others.


Consensus: A good mix of interviews and archival footage, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish is an important documentary that raises timely questions about the dangerous injustice of keeping whales in captivity.  ***1/4 (Out of 4)

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