One of the subtler differences between narrative movies and documentaries is this: the documentarian is more likely to consider the subject of their film to have Significance. One can carve out a respectable career as the director of frivolous and ephemeral crowd-pleasers – and people like Roland Emmerich and Gore Verbinski have done just that – but if you're going to put time and effort into presenting a true story to an audience, it's almost certainly one you have strong personal feelings about and consider to be important.
This inevitably has ramifications, given we're talking about a documentary feature and not a news bulletin. To what extent should you try to keep your personal feelings out of the film – or, conversely, how open should you be about your own bias and opinions? It's a complex issue and one which I suspect defies easy answers, but I was reminded of it while watching Gabriella Cowperthwaite's rather accomplished documentary Blackfish.
The film opens with an archive recording of an emergency call to a Florida police department: there has been an incident at a marine wildlife park and one of the staff has been eaten by a whale. Out of context, it sounds funny – but played over images of the graceful, enigmatic forms of killer whales in their natural habitat, it instantly becomes laden with foreboding.
The relationship between captive orcas and their trainers is one of the central themes of the film – many of the interviewees appearing are former whale trainers, who initially are very open about their passion for the job and the sometimes less-than-stringent entry requirements. But also fundamental to the film is the nature of the whales themselves and the morality of keeping them as, essentially, performing beasts.
The film presents substantial amounts of evidence indicating that orcas are not just large, massively powerful apex predators: they are sophisticated, highly social and intelligent creatures, with what look very much like their own languages and cultures, and a capacity for emotional development that may even exceed that of human beings. The film argues, virtually in so many words, that keeping them captive is morally unjustifiable.
It is also extremely dangerous – occasionally for the whales themselves, as their culture does not equip them to cope well with being confined in close proximity to each other, but particularly for their trainers. The film suggests that there is a historical pattern of captive whales attacking and occasionally killing their trainers, and has the footage to prove it. This does not quite extend to whale-oriented snuff, but there are still some shocking sequences, particularly one in which a whale casually and repeatedly drags its trainer to the bottom of a tank and holds him there, seemingly for the fun of it. At the heart of this is the tragic and rather disturbing story of Tilikum, a male orca with a history of involvement in fatal incidents. As whales go, Tilikum is one messed-up cetacean: there is anecdotal evidence he has been directly involved in the deaths of at least two and possibly three people – and yet he still regularly appears in shows in front of the public.
One inevitably wonders why, and the film obligingly reveals the reason: an adult male orca's semen is worth its weight in gold. One of the more eye-popping scenes in the film is footage of trainers procuring said substance, by the simple expedient of – how to put this delicately? – lamb-shanking a whale. Blackfish's criticism of the marine parks for their pursuit of profit ahead of animal and trainer safety is mostly implicit, but also unmistakable.
As a polemic, Blackfish is extremely well-assembled, powerful, and persuasive – but then again, the parks industry it so trenchantly attacks has done it a great favour by not putting up representatives to rebut the claims of the critics who appear. Only one participant attempts to defend the practice of keeping whales captive, and he makes the reasonable point that marine wildlife parks do valuable work in making the public aware of animals like orcas. However, set against the mass of testimony going the other way (amongst others, an ex-soldier-of-fortune appears and announces that, never mind toppling governments in Latin America, trapping orcas is the worst thing he's ever done), this is never in danger of looking like a balanced treatment of this issue.
Is that necessarily a criticism? I'm not sure; as I said, this doesn't aspire to be a news report, and broadly speaking my sympathies naturally run along similar lines to the film-makers' anyway. But I couldn't help thinking that even as the film is debunking the parks' publicity presenting the performing orcas as happy, fun-loving, well-treated cuddly animals, it is anthropomorphising them just as much in a different way, as fabulous, near-mystical creatures with faculties beyond those of human beings. Hmmm. I'm not so sure about that, but one of the themes of the film is the nature of the relationship between humans and the wild, and if the film iself can't simply present the whales as whales that only goes to show how very complex this issue is. In any case, while Blackfish is obviously a film with an axe to grind, it does a great job of justifying itself in this – it's highly intelligent, immaculately assembled, and thoroughly engrossing to watch.