Sundance 2013: Blackfish review

★★★★☆
Newly positioned as one of this year's most anticipated American documentaries following rave reviews at Sundance, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish (2013) makes its way to the festival's London incarnation this week ahead of a late July theatrical release. Cowperthwaite's slight naïveté as only a second-time feature director (having deputised back in 2010 with City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story) may slip through the cracks on rare occasions, but is more than compensated for by what is, as a whole, an exceptionally engrossing, at times heartrending study into captive orca maltreatment in the United States.

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a 22-and-a-half foot bull killer whale snatched from its native Iceland as a calf, who is believed to be responsible for causing the deaths of three people whilst in captivity in the US. Utilising deeply personal testimonies from those who knew (or believe to have known) the still-incarcerated cetacean best, Cowperthwaite carefully pieces together a compelling portrait of this tortured creature, before putting forward a case for its release. Also incorporated are several heart-in-mouth tapes of Tilikum attacking various Sealand/SeaWorld staff members - though thankfully the film's director shies away from showing any actual deaths on-screen.

Opening to a chilling 911 call in which a SeaWorld Orlando employee explains that one of their killer whales has "eaten" a trainer (in reference to the tragic death of senior handler Dawn Brancheau in February, 2010), Blackfish wastes little time in laying its impactful cards firmly on the table. Clear links are made between the psychological trauma inflicted upon captive orcas and the aggressive tendencies displayed by those individuals most severely scarred, both mentally and physically. Arguably the film's most distressing scene comes courtesy of a member of the public, capturing on camera the fresh, bloody slash wounds inflicted on Tilikum by a female animal's raking three-inch teeth.

Blackfish's most obvious flaw lies in its unwillingness to put forward a workable solution to the marine animal park conundrum. Despite many institutes' abhorrent treatment of their star attractions, it can't be denied that brands such as SeaWorld have helped to promote public interest in orcas and other majestic ocean-going mammals. Do the ends justify the means? On the balance of Cowperthwaite's exposé, you'd be inclined to answer with a definitive 'no'; however, what's lacking here is that just little extra bit of expert analysis into alternative means of protecting these emotionally complex giants.

Regardless, it's easy to forgive such minor shortcomings when a documentary wears its heart on its sleeve with this level of sincerity and moral determination. A self-confessed novice in understanding killer whale behaviour (as, more disturbingly, are the majority of orca trainers who contribute) at the beginning of her journey, two years spent in production and post-production have yielded rich and provocative rewards. Blackfish may not top every critic's poll when it comes to picking 2013's best doc come December, but its wide public appeal may well help it make the splash its subject matter so desperately deserves.

Blackfish is released in UK cinemas on 26 July, courtesy of Dogwoof.

The 2nd Sundance London film and music festival takes place from 25-28 April, 2013. For more of our Sundance London 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Daniel Green

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