Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 “killer” whales. This is one of the most important and emotional documentaries I have ever seen and I truly believe everyone needs to see it. It is a heartbreaking and aggressive in-depth look at the tragic lives of Tilikum and other SeaWorld whales and the violent attacks their human trainers faced as a result of not simply these whales’ aggression but rather, this film investigates in part what has caused this aggression and makes a case for SeaWorld’s self-serving, irresponsible and inhumane business practices as being behind every horrible event it exposes, and never apologetically so. If there’s one lesson to be learned here, it is that we should certainly know better by now, but that the cycle continues anyway, which motivates this beautiful film and grounds it in truth and the desire for change.
All I could keep thinking throughout this film, really is precisely that: this documentary can serve as a perfect example of how the medium can be used for change, and I do believe this documentary can be a step towards that, but it is also an indictment of SeaWorld and a really horrifying expose that proves there is still so much that needs to be done. As a documentary, it is convincing and calculated, taking us through the history of captivity, which is difficult to believe even as it continues and repeats itself.
The main event that the film is centered around though is the fatal attack on trainer Dawn Brancheau a few years ago and the lawsuit that ensued, but this event is so unfortunately similar to those that the documentary reveals have been swept under the rug, not just being kept from the public until now but also from the other trainers, which is perhaps one of the most unexpected and shocking travesties the film presents us with. Those trainers, who provide the most heart and intellect out of any of the talking heads in the film, express real regret and embarrassment and emotion that is admirable and infectious. This film incites anger in the viewer, I think, and sadness that in twenty, even thirty years, we haven’t learned that capturing these creatures is immoral and that we as humans don’t hold that power, as much as we think we deserve these animals as sources of entertainment.
One particularly heart wrenching moment is when a baby whale is taken from her mother; if there is any scene in the film which proves its point to us in such a clear and concise way, it should be this one, but really every shot we’re given, right down to old SeaWorld commercials, becomes something disgraceful and sad, especially as we learn the truth behind even the most innocent of images.
I also thought, formally, the editing and everything was really powerful and on point; the way the courtroom accounts were presented was particularly notable. This documentary is informative, detailed and above all it is a moral gut-punch that should, and does, effectively make us question our power as humans and to what extent we are and always have been misusing it for our own capitalist gain.
But again, I think if there is any text that can convince us of this fact– in order to move towards something better and more progressive– in such an intelligent, eloquent, and affecting way, it is this text. This documentary will grip you and haunt you, as it very well deserves to, also to honor these beautiful and tormented creatures and the humans who loved them but fell victim to them anyway in playing an unintentional part in their very torment; the whole thing will resonate with you, marking it as a masterpiece documentary that is also a deeply current and necessary film.