Many documentaries address social and political issues and help to motivate real change. Food Inc. has helped changed the way we eat, whereas Last Call at the Oasis has influenced the way we use water. Others like An Inconvenient Truth are even part of required viewing in classrooms around the world.
Last year, The Act of Killing won the PUMA Impact Award. It is an unsettling ‘American movie-style’ re-enactment of the Indonesian genocide of the mid 1960’s, actually acted out by the very men who led the death squads. Instead of being condemned to life in prison, these men are free and respected leaders in Indonesia. The subject is shocking and the ‘acting’ is very raw and revealing – but personally, I found it considerably slow-moving. If it wins the Oscar for Best Documentary this year, it will be for the story – definitely not for the artistry.
This year, my personal choice for the PUMA Award would be Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish – an animal-rights doc detailing the cruelty of illegally capturing, confining and using orca whales for entertainment. Blackfish focuses on the largest male orca, Tilikum – and the three deaths involving trainers who had worked for years with the killer whale. Cowperthwaite was shocked upon the realization that SeaWorld has been self-governed and unregulated for 40 years. The film is rife with contradictory information released by SeaWorld, while revealing shocking truths about the nature of the deaths and SeaWorld’s dishonesty in dealing with their trainers and staff.
Such docs are hard to watch, but necessary in order to reveal the truth of marine parks, such as the one documented in the film. While such places promote themselves as ‘fun engagement’ with marine mammals, it is actually an unnecessary form of emotional torture for these animals. There is nothing natural about the nature of the ‘entertainment’. While orcas are more than intelligent enough to be taught to let a human ride on their backs or jump up to reach a ball, the tedium of such a daily regimen is as close to their behaviour in the wild as it is natural for pigs to fly. Anyone with any compassion who sees this film is unlikely to ever again regard this as ‘entertainment’. And so that is why it is important for this film to be seen. And of course, it has been – by millions of people, including many celebrities who have spoken out against such cruelty.
After the premiere of Blackfish at the Sundance Film Festival, some entertainers are no longer giving much love and support to places like SeaWorld – and that is hurting the parks – right in their wallets! Willie Nelson and The Barenaked Ladies both rushed to cancel their concerts at SeaWorld after viewing the film. Whether it was due to moral outrage or fear of bad press, it doesn’t really matter – because as we all know, if celebrities blacklist a place, it draws attention to the cause.
It’s not just entertainers that have indicated their disapproval since the release of the doc. There have been numerous online petitions, Facebook and Twitter rants vowing to never visit marine-parks.
This is exactly what I love about docs – they give that extra push and sometimes a much-needed bigger voice to important worldly issues.
However, there is always some unenlightened ignoramus (I won’t name any names *cough cough) blocking the raising of public awareness. The term ‘Black fish’ is a most appropriate metaphor for the misunderstanding and ignorance historically surrounding such a magnificent mammal – which is actually the largest member of the dolphin family, and not a whale at all. Even after all of the attention the film has received in the media, even after all the people who have boycotted SeaWorld, the Sochi Olympics was planning on displaying two of seven orcas, which were captured last year by a Russian company. It was just reported on February 6th that the orcas will not be delivered to Sochi for the games – but the fate of the whales is still uncertain. Reports say that the orcas are being kept in Moscow – either way, these adult killer whales, which have only known the freedom of the wild, will now spend the rest of their lives in a miserable state of captivity.
Did Russia not get the memo: Big wild animals in cages and bathtubs – Not ok! Russia has been very resistant in the face of any form of outside pressure to do the right thing about animal rights – I won’t get into its killing of thousands of stray dogs in Sochi. Blackfish is a hopeful, public-consciousness-raising effort to protect orcas, dolphins and other mammals, and Russia`s actions are a giant step backwards.
Blackfish raises eyebrows and plenty of questions. How has this industry operated without regulations and reproach for 40 years? Why were the deaths of three trainers by the same orca not investigated more thoroughly? The Russians are capturing orcas and getting away with something that is profoundly inhumane. We now have indisputable proof of the profound anxiety suffered by these highly sensitive, intelligent animals when taken from their families and stuck in a tank.
I believe a day will come when people will look back in horror over the way animals were exploited for purposes of our own entertainment – just as we look back in horror over the ownership and abuse of slaves.
For those of us who find such callous behaviour unacceptable, our power will come through boycotting. Without an audience, this industry will no longer be able to continue exploiting their biggest performers.