Give Blackfish an Oscar Nomination

Photo by YIM Hafiz. Some rights reserved.

Photo by YIM Hafiz. Some rights reserved.

Tomorrow morning, the Internet will be abuzz with speculations over the Oscar nominations, as they will have been just-released. Today though, it’s still (sort of) anybody’s guess. Many have weighed in already that 2013 was one of the best years for movies in recent memory, so the competition seems a little fiercer with so many great movies competing.

But what does this have to do with the environment? Well, nothing yet, but allow me to begin again. This year on Christmas, I went with my family to see the new Martin Scorsese movie, the Wolf of Wall Street. Well, we went to the theater anyways, but the movie was already sold out. So we went home and queued up the documentary Blackfish, and we sat slackjawed in front of the TV for the next hour and a half.

Disclaimer: Blackfish is a terrible Christmas movie. In a year where the best picture frontrunner is a brutally beautiful exploration of slavery in America (12 Years a Slave, go see that too!), Blackfish was still perhaps the saddest film I saw in 2013. The documentary, helmed by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, takes an uncompromising look at whales in captivity at theme parks like Sea World, and the toll that that captivity has taken on the whales themselves. The film posits it’s thesis quite clearly, through interviews with former whale trainers as well as investigations into administrative records and security videos from the parks – these whales engage in violent, depressive behavior as a direct result of their captivity.

I don’t want to go too in depth because the film will make its points much better than I will, but in broad strokes, the documentary takes a close look at one whale in particular – Tilikum, a massive 12,000 bull orca currently living at SeaWorld. We follow Tilikum from his capture in the waters of the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s through his time at SeaWorld, where he has become the main male whale used for breeding and has given birth to 21 calves, successfully and unsuccessfully, many through artificial insemination. Tilikum also has a violent streak, and has been involved with the deaths of three humans during his time in captivity, including Dawn Brancheau, his trainer at SeaWorld.

The film examines these deaths with the gravity they deserve, but it also does not in any way blame the whale. We are instead given a glimpse into the insanely mundane and restrictive life these whales live, and the physical and mental toll that such a limited life can take on these incredibly intelligent animals. There have been many great and moving films in the documentary genre this year (I would also highly recommend The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell), but only one has begun to cause major changes in the real world – and so I say, with whatever limited authority I have as a movie lover and a whale lover, give Blackfish the Oscar for Best Documentary this year.

For more info on the film itself, this editorial at CNN by the director is worth reading. Then watch the film on Netflix Instant, and then check out the back and forth between SeaWorld and the filmmakers over the film’s charges against the park here.

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