—by Alex Schwartz, EcoMyths Alliance intern

As the lights started to dim at a recent screening of Blackfish, I suddenly wondered what kind of cinematic experience I had gotten myself into.

“Why would a highly intelligent animal attack its trainer – in effect, bite the hand that feeds it?” This question inspired Blackfish.

I’d read that at the 2013 Sundance film festival, CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures had partnered to acquire the U.S. rights to this action-packed documentary about killer whale attacks. I knew Variety had dubbed it “a mesmerizing psychological thriller,” while the Hollywood Reporter had called it a “emotionally powerful.” But what came next, I did not expect….

A riveting watch, Blackfish is a thoughtful exploration of the consequences of placing killer whales in captivity for human entertainment. The film follows the story of Tilikum, a killer whale that was taken from his family and natural habitat at a young age. A combination of real news footage, on-scene video, and intriguing interviews track his unpleasant and aggressive journey from one location and victim to the next. The climax of the story is Tilikum’s tragic attack of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau—a news item that made headlines around the world in 2010.

EcoMyths interns Alex Schwartz (left) and Jessica Walsh (right) chat with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (center).
EcoMyths interns Alex (left)
and Jessica (right) met director Gabriela Cowperthwaite at a Chicago screening.

Throughout the documentary, I appreciated that the filmmakers provided solid information in an entertaining format—without demanding the audience to pick a side. For its part, Sea World declined to comment on the film during its production. Since then, according to the New York Times, a spokesperson emailed about 50 film critics with a statement calling the documentary “misleading” and “scientifically inaccurate.”

To be clear, I’m no expert on orcas and can’t fully parse out different versions of the story. But a few questions have struck me since I left the theater: Should these intelligent, beautiful, friendly, and simply wild creatures of the sea be kept in captivity for the sole purpose of human pleasure and entertainment? And if so, are there ways we can improve their experience?

Ultimately, the documentary has inspired me to learn more about the topic, and to think more critically about how we can appreciate wild animals without harming them.

Interested in checking out Blackfish? It hits theaters nationwide this Friday, July 26. Visit the official website for more info.

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