Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite. US. 2013. 82mins


A convincing condemnation of the treatment orcas receive at seemingly humane, family-friendly water parks like SeaWorld, the documentary Blackfish presents its evidence through a series of talking-head subjects, most of them former whale trainers who years later still seem haunted by what they’ve witnessed. Slickly produced but consistently engaging, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film refrains from overstating its case, a wise decision considering the sufficiently emotional material on hand.

With admirable restraint, Blackfish sharply criticises parks like SeaWorld for their actions without resorting to cheap emotional manipulation to push its points across.

Screening at the True/False Film Festival and at the Miami International Film Festival after its premiere at Sundance, Blackfish will be released domestically by Magnolia. (Afterward, it will be broadcast on CNN.) No doubt animal-rights activists will take great interest in this documentary, but strong reviews should help raise the movie’s profile among discriminating audiences of all different stripes.

Blackfish bases its story around the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a skilled SeaWorld trainer who was killed by an orca (more popularly known as a killer whale) named Tilikum. Using this tragedy as its springboard, the movie looks back at the history of water parks incorporating orcas in their live shows, speaking with trainers and whale specialists to understand precisely the sort of mental trauma inflicted on these creatures in captivity that sometimes provokes violent, deadly behaviour.

With admirable restraint, Blackfish sharply criticises parks like SeaWorld for their actions without resorting to cheap emotional manipulation to push its points across. Instead, in a calm, straightforward manner, experts explain how such companies spread falsehoods about orcas — for instance, suggesting they only live about 30 years, when in fact females can live to 100 in the wild — and try to cover up trainer accidents through cynical public-relations spin. The cumulative effect of this information, supplemented by former trainers recalling their own experiences with the sensitive whales, becomes persuasive through sheer bulk.

Also assisting Cowperthwaite’s cause is her judicious use of footage taken from orca attacks at different sea parks, which underline the massiveness of these creatures in comparison to their meagre human trainers. This footage is never particularly gory or excessive, but it repeatedly reinforces the awesome power that these gentle whales possess. (An irony mentioned in the documentary is that no orca has attacked a human in the wild — it’s only the unwise caging process that goes on in captivity that creates profound emotional turmoil for these sophisticated creatures.)

Cowperthwaite’s background is in producing documentaries for cable channels such as ESPN and Animal Planet, and so it should be no surprise that she’s organised Blackfish in a polished, accessible way, carefully laying out her story and keeping things moving at a steady, confident pace. This is not to suggest that she doesn’t feel deeply for her subject matter — only that she allows the anger, sadness and guilt that still consumes the former trainers to be the film’s emotional anchor.

What’s striking about these ex-trainers is that they all were quite young and naïve about the psychological damage they were doing to these orcas they genuinely loved. Some of them still can’t quite forgive themselves for being so wilfully blind, and it’s here that Blackfish may be most poignant. Subtly, the film contends that the men and women who worked the most closely with these creatures remain profoundly torn up about their actions — and yet the parks that hired them hide behind lawyers and refusals for interview requests to continue their incredibly hurtful practices.

Production companies: Our Turn Productions, Manny O Productions

Domestic distribution: Magnolia Pictures, www.magpictures.com, and CNN Films, www.cnn.com

Producers: Manuel V. Oteyza, Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Executive producers: Judy Bart, Erica Kahn

Screenplay: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres, Tim Zimmerman

Cinematography: Jonathan Ingalls, Christopher Towey

Editor: Eli Despres

Music: Jeff Beal

Website: www.magpictures.com/blackfish