Let’s not stand on any kind of pedestal of pretentiousness: the medium of film’s primary function has always been to entertain rather than inform or provoke. For some filmmakers though, film, as a popular and highly accessible art form, has a responsibility or an obligation to educate and reveal the hidden or little known despairs and joys of the world.
The documentary genre by its very nature aims to incite social revelation. Films like The Act of Killing and Senna are both critical and commercial success stories that have not only achieved during award season, but have managed to spark a fire amongst the common man. WhatCulture provides a more comprehensive list (many of which are documentaries) of world impacting cinema for you to indulge in on your own time. In a similar vein, today’s article will focus on a film that has ignited uproar and encapsulates the transformative social power of the moving image.
The 2013 documentary Blackfish focuses on the tragic story of Tilikum, a captive Killer Whale at SeaWorld. Over the course of his life, Tilikum has shockingly killed 3 people. Through interviews with experts and trainers, Blackfish attempts to decipher the cause of what SeaWorld has inexplicably dubbed “a lapse in safety”. The conclusions drawn by Blackfish reveal the shocking and heartbreaking reality of, essentially, imprisoning such large, intelligent and sentient animals.
The social consequences of Blackfish have become strikingly evident from the increased and detrimental effect on SeaWorld. In 2014, many reputable artists such as Heart, Barenaked Ladies and Willie Nelson withdrew from the not at all redneck sounding “Bands, Brew and BBQ” due to the overwhelming reaction from the documentary. Recently, the park saw its net income drop 84% due to attendance issues stemming from what the SeaWorld CEO declared “brand challenges”.
If you have not seen Blackfish yet, I thoroughly recommend it. It intelligently reveals a dark chapter of human history, one we will hopefully look back at and realise the barbarity of what we as a species were doing. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has managed to create an important piece of cinema history that proves that film has incredible power on society, particularly in a time of such enormous global connectivity. This, of course, has a downside.
We live in the time of ‘Facebook Warriors’ and bandwagons, and if something of a political nature goes viral it does not take long for strong yet ill informed opinions to spread. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the critique of SeaWorld that Blackfish presents, however the very public attack and near destruction of the company could be deemed unnecessary. Consider this: SeaWorld has undoubtedly increased the reputation and awareness for the Killer Whale and Killer Whale conservation, yet, in doing this, a few individual Orcas have despicably had to suffer. Without this, however, the threatened species may have been driven even closer to extinction, potentially even reaching it. Of course this does not absolve SeaWorld from its sins, and thankfully the proper court cases from the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) are in place in order to try and resolve this, as well as ensure the freedom of these Whales.
Concerning Blackfish: where the film succeeds in revealing the shameful secrets of SeaWorld it perhaps succeeds even further as an example of cinema’s potential and honestly terrifying power on society.