Monday, May 23, 2016

It is not okay.

Every summer my wife and I take our kids to the Baltimore Zoo. Fancy, right?

Anyway, as the kids get older, the trip gets better. Not only does no one have to carry one of them around anymore (well, at least in the beginning), but now they have begun to actually appreciate the animals. Compared to when they were really little, their eyes open even wider, they laugh a little louder, and, of course, they ask better questions.

Hopefully, when they're older, they'll continue to develop that curiosity about the natural world, and develop a sense that it must be valued and protected. Nature documentaries are incredible, right? But nothing can replace seeing a majestic animal in person.

And there's the rub. 

Somewhat parallel to the idea of heading to the zoo, is the notion of watching a documentary like Blackfish. You may not actually enjoy it, but it's something you likely need to see for yourself...once. Maybe it'll leave you furious and frustrated with the atrocities greedy corporations are willing to extend to the greatest creatures of the natural world. But it might also thrill you, seeing the beauty and power these giant beasts possess.

Either way, it's a real kick in the teeth.

Blackfish, like many of you know, tells the soul-crushing life-story of an orca named Tilikum (or Tilly for short). Tilly is an engaging figure to shine the spotlight on, as not only has he lived one fascinating life, but he's also taken three. 

But before you can condemn the killer whale, you have to take a look back. At the people. See, Tilly was captured as a calf over thirty years ago, and taken from his crying mother in the Icelandic seas. He was, for the most part, isolated in captivity, and when he was around other whales, they would carve him up. Tilly, for a host of reasons, would inevitably show signs of aggression toward his handlers, eventually resulting in the death of a young trainer. That was his first kill.

Why wasn't it his last?

The answer is pretty simple, honestly: money. Whale semen doesn't exactly grow on trees (hey, I'm no science teacher), and with Tilly around, SeaWorld was able to breed a stable of orcas to fill their parks around the world. Yeah, who gives a shit about what's best for the animal, not to mention the people in the water with him, when he consistently supplies the company with indentured servants.

Yeah, take a bow...dammit.
I don't watch nearly enough documentaries, but it's safe to say that Blackfish is infinitely compelling. and damn-near must see. Even though the whales are black-and-white, just about everything else in this exquisitely-crafted documentary is impossibly gray.

Also rather ambiguous, are the Yays and Boos. Assuming ambiguous is a synonym for boring. And pointless. Hey, I'm no English teacher. Well, I won't two more weeks! (uh, and if I keep showing documentaries like this one...not ever again)

  • The grace and beauty of a family of orcas in the wild is truly something to behold. Their familial bonds and instincts are damn near life-affirming. They're so smart, too.
  • It's not much to actually cheer for, but holy cow those first two minutes grab you.
  • In almost every place I've ever worked, OSHA is a four-letter word that no one in management ever wants to hear. But in this doc? Solid individuals, they are.
  • Tilly's second kill is a remarkably terrifying story on many fronts. I'm not happy that someone died, no, but it's quite possibly one of the strangest stories I've ever heard. Just...unimaginable, really.
  • And finally, even though this entire film is so unsettling it's almost unwatchable, it's also impeccably crafted. Playing out like a found-footage horror flick, the suspense and tension are impressively suffocating. Tilly may initially seem like an easy villain, sure, but the real bad guy is the faceless presence of SeaWorld and everything they stand for. I don't doubt that they actually care about their orcas, but the bottom line is clearly...the bottom line.
I don't have enough room to list all that's wrong with this pic.
  • Gosh, the details of what happened to Dawn are f--king awful. 
  • As are the moments where we get to see and relive what it's like to capture a killer whale calf. Screaming babies? Awful. Crying moms? Worse. But what they do with the whales they inadvertently kill in the process? The worst.
  • Hey, we've all got families to feed, I get it, but holy shit these people they show spewing company line bullshit are just awful.
  • Dorsal collapse occurs in around 1% of killers whale in the wild. But in captivity? Uh, it's much higher. Much. 
  • Sometimes we're privy to some whale-on-whale violence that is pretty tough to watch. I imagine for anyone in the paying audience, that's a long ride home with the the psychiatrist. 
  • Never has the word accident so infuriated me. That's kind of a long list of boo-boos, no?
  • As an *coughcough* educator, I routinely rely on the good folks at Common Sense Media to do my dirty work in regard to what I can (or should?) show in the classroom. In one of the reviews, in terms of sexual content, it says something about seeing 'what could be a whale penis'. Yeah, let me tell, there's no doubt about it. It's perfectly clear. (even though one of my kids said It's the whales balls, guys)
  • And finally, there are already enough f--king terrible things in the world, and sure as shit, we have to go and make things worse. SeaWorld could have stepped up and done the right thing...Hell, anything, really. But, f--k taking responsibility, right? Let's just ride these animals straight down the drain instead. F--k common decency when you've got whales jumping through hoops!
I showed my students this film, disturbing as it is, because I thought it was something they needed to see. If it got me in trouble, oh well, as ultimately I think you need to discuss, debate and foster a sense of right and wrong in young kids, as many of them seem inherently apathetic. Sometimes, you gotta see something that shakes you out of yourself, and alters your appreciation and understanding of the world.

But may not like what you see. You may not like seeing a incredible animal confined to a cage. Or a tank. But in my opinion? You should still look. 

And then do something about what you saw.


  1. "ambiguous is a synonym for boring" - That made me lol.

    This doc really moved me and made me completely change my stance on SeaWorld, which up until viewing it I had very fond memories of visiting the place as a kid. It was awful seeing them take those whales. I cried watching it because I thought of someone taking my 2 year old away from me (yes, I'm a wuss) but those whales grieve. They're shown to.

    The details about what happened to Dawn are awful and even more so after reading Beneath The Surface by John Hargrove (one of the trainers in this film) and after reading the Blood in the Water article on outside online. (I recommend them all)

    SeaWorld needs to retire these animals to large sea pens.

    1. I only went once (or twice?) as a kid and I recall thinking it was a pretty rad place. But now? Holy shit I wouldn't step foot in that place. it too much of a stretch to say that zoos and aquariums in almost the same thing? Maybe...but BlackFish saddened me on the whole thing.

      Shit...the grieving whales was such a punch to the stomach...goodness. And then that burly fisherman dude was like 'this is the worst thing I have ever done in my life' and I was officially spiraling into depression. Yikes.

      I will definitely check out Hargrove's book and that article, though I'm afraid I might lose my mind and go into rage-mode. (which is me sulking like a little kid)

  2. This doc is all sorts of disturbing. I really came out of this one like "F--- SeaWorld!" I'm totally with you about the awfulness of the people "spewing company line bullshit." I wished I could reach through the screen and grab one of these jerks by the throat. I don't know which made me hate humanity more, this or The Cove. That said, I also agree that this is a must-see for exactly the reasons you gave. Now that you've traumatized your class, I'm highly recommending Batkid Begins to make them feel better about people.

    1. Yeah, I think even if you were a current employee of SeaWorld, you'd leave this flick thinking 'F all of this!'

      What I've heard about The Cove...well, I don't think I could even handle it. Not for a minute.

      Haha! Yes! I'm totally going to redeem myself/humanity with Batkid Begins next week. Fingers crossed they dig it...and that I don't cry myself to sleep in front of them.

  3. Nope. Just can't. I remember seeing Project Nim and it made me wanna kill people. I cannot stand seeing animal suffer and being used liked that. Sometimes zoos are literally saving their lives - we had the case of a little bear here that was abandoned by his mother - or you know DiCaprio killed her - and he wastaken to the zoo and is super happy. But this seems like something different all together than Sea World thing

    1. I never saw Project Nim, but I probably couldn't handle that either. Dell mentioned The Cove...and there's not f--king way. your DiCaprio comment. That ol' bearkillin' sonuva bitch.

      I agree that zoos are a different uh, animal all together, but there's still a sense of exploitation and being taken out of one's natural habitat. Sure, it's not nearly as bad as what is featured in this doc (or at least, I hope so), but...I still feel terrible. Even if just a little bit.

  4. Very, very good review. And I agree that it needs to be seen. You aren't being responsible if you refuse to inform yourself.

    1. Thank you for not only the comment, but the Twitter mention as well. I appreciate it.

      And I couldn't agree with you more. Hard as this film is to doesn't mean you shouldn't see it.