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INDIEWATCH: 'Blackfish' questions who's in charge when man mixes with the wild

Dawn Brancheau (right) with Tilikum, the killer whale who would later take her life during a Seaworld show on Feb. 24, 2010.

"Blackfish" (2013)

Starring: Tilikum, John Hargrove, Samantha Berg, Carol Ray, Dave Duffus

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Writers: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres

Time: 1:23

Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing and violent images

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant

If you watch one documentary this year, let it be "Blackfish."

It traces the capture and confinement of Tilikum, a killer whale, who dismembered Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau during a live show in 2010.

This wasn't Tilikum's first murder, which poses the question: Why was he working with other trainers? "Blackfish" digs for answers to this and why highly intelligent and emotional mammals would kill.

Former trainers who worked with Tilikum, whale researchers and a neuroscientist offer insight into orca behaviors in the wild and in captivity. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite shows Tilikum's capture by whale hunters, his abuse by other whales and the conditions of his confinement, which rocked me to the core. As a huge animal lover, I ugly-cried.

Brancheau's death wasn't an isolated incident, as "Blackfish" exposes attacks on trainers at different Seaworld sites.

In one horrific scene, a whale repeatedly pulls her trainer under water for 60 to 80 seconds at a time. She lets him go, grabs him again and repeats for several minutes. An extremely calculated game of cat and mouse, and the cat weighs 11,000 pounds. In another scene, a whale pile-drives a trainer as he's riding another orca, crushing his body during a live show.

"Blackfish" questions why, with these attacks, Seaworld trainers were still allowed to work with whales. Former trainers offer an answer in the reputation of killer whales as friendly, cuddly animals is important to the industry.

Footage of Dawn Brancheau swimming with orcas is mixed with court reports of the Seaworld v. OSHA case, which argues that trainers cannot be in the water with whales.

OSHA won. Seaworld appealed, and after all of these whale attacks, why would this organization fight to get trainers back in the water with dangerous animals?

There are so many angles to this complicated look at this industry, but director Cowperthwaite gives audiences a well-researched and perfectly executed film.

"Blackfish" broke my heart, devastated and disgusted me.

It's worth streaming and discussing.


Grade: A++

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

Lavine is Accent editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Call her at (701) 780-1265, (800) 477-6572, ext. 1265, or send email to Read her blog at or follow her on Twitter at @AccentEditorGF.