One of my most memorable experiences as a child was going to Sea World to see the majestic and seemingly friendly 8,000-pound orca, Shamu, splash the audience when she leapt out of the containment pool. One of my most scarring experiences as a child was watching the 1977 film, Orca: The Killer Whale. In this film, a whale-hunter battles a vengeful and violent orca living in the wild—an orca radically different from the captive orca I saw at Sea World.
As it turns out, the orca from the film was a fictional representation of orcas because the only orca known to have killed humans, including trainer Dawn Brancheau, is Tilikum—an orca that lives in captivity at Sea World. Blackfish, a documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and an Official Selection at the 30th Miami International Film Festival, asks a simple question: what went wrong?
Blackfish attempts to examine the complex behavioral patterns of Tilikum and how captivity may have somehow changed his behavior—and put Sea World trainers at risk. What Blackfish doesn’t do is challenge the notion that keeping these massive mammals in captivity is immoral, which may be one fatal flaw of the film. Rather, the film focuses on the lack of strict safety protocols for trainers at Sea World.
Brancheau’s death tarnished my memories of Shamu soaring out of his tiny pool and benignly splashing the audience. In perfect harmony, trainer and killer whale were one being seemingly driven by a singular mission: to entertain me. It never occurred to me that Shamu might not have actually liked entertaining me and that it’s absurd, when I think of it now looking back, to use a mammal called a “killer” to entertain children.
“Blackfish” will be screened at O Cinema Miami Shores, 9806 NE 2nd Ave., Miami Shores; 786-565-FILM; www.o-cinema.org. Screening dates are Thursday, August 15 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.; Friday, August 16 at 9 p.m.; Saturday, August 17 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, August 18 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.