(out of 5)
Orcas perform tricks for the amusement of audiences at water parks around the world. In the wild, these misunderstood and misnamed “killer whales” roam in highly social pods, their family units perpetually contained (adults never leave their parents) with no recorded incident of harm to humans ever taking place. Something is fishy, then, when violent acts by orcas in captivity occur against their trainers, which this documentary presents as likely the result of psychosis brought on by the demands placed on them and the frustrating situations in which they live; an intelligent animal that usually roams the vast oceans cannot be placed in what is basically a bathtub and be expected not to have some kind of psychological breakdown. The centre of this riveting documentary is Tilikum, captured in the wild as an infant for a park in Victoria, British Columbia before an incident involving the death of a trainer has him sold to Florida’s SeaWorld, where trainers have a basic knowledge of his history but are not given any reason to be concerned. When Dawn Brancheau dies in the pool after being savagely brutalized by Tilikum, it provokes an investigation into the animal’s history and SeaWorld’s practices that go as far as a lawsuit. Former trainers of the park reveal fascinating details of abuse and neglect that are complicated by their own personal relationships with the creatures, plus their regrets at having participated in a situation which they now view as inhumane. The film is a terrifying record of tragic circumstances: you are nervous for the human injuries that occur (it’s scarier than a horror movie) but also heartbroken for creatures that are being incarcerated for the passing amusement of spectators. Try and keep a dry eye when an Orca mother starts sending long-range sonar messages in the hopes of recovering her infant. The filmmakers attempt an unbiased viewpoint, but SeaWorld representatives declined any involvement with the film, which in the end will do them no good (their attempts to respond to its content in the wake of the film’s box office success is now sadly too little too late). It’s an astonishing piece of work, a wonderful companion piece to The Cove and emotionally affecting to a lasting degree.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Produced by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Manny Oteyza
Music by Jeff Beal
Production Design by Syd Garon
Film Editing by Eli B. Despres