A chilling exploration of the life of an orca in captivity, this documentary forces us to look at zoos and especially aquarium shows in a completely new light. Rather than a more comprehensive exploration of animal mistreatment, this is a specific story that encompasses some truly horrific incidents. And while the filmmakers clearly show that these things are caused by animal abuse, no one is willing to accept the blame.
The orca in question is Tilikum, and we follow his life from capture in the North Pacific. He's first sent to an aquarium in Vancouver, where he was viciously abused by both his human trainers and the two female orcas living there. When he killed a young trainer in frustration, he was sent to SeaWorld in Orlando, where no one was informed about his dangerous past. He went on to injure and kill several more people, which SeaWorld continually spun as trainer error so they could keep Tilikum as the big-whale finale in their shows while selling his sperm to other parks. But all of his actions can be traced to psychological trauma.
The key fact here is that orcas aren't actually killer whales at all. They are peaceful creatures who live in family units for life, communicate with a complexity that humans can't comprehend and display extremely strong emotional lives. Filmmaker Cowperthwaite talks to a wide range of trainers and experts who have studied these animals and are horrified by their treatment in aquariums: these creatures are born to swim vast distances in close-knit groups, not to be isolated in tiny pools. Tellingly, orcas live twice as long in the open sea as they do in captivity. Of course, SeaWorld refused to be interviewed for the film.
Expertly assembled, this documentary illustrates every comment with archival footage and firsthand accounts. Thankfully it cuts away from the worst violence, although we see enough to be deeply disturbed, not by Tilikum's sometimes fatal actions but by the wilful misconduct of officials who refuse to acknowledge their own cruelty. Tilikum's systematic abuse since early childhood has left him without social skills, so his actions are an expression of confusion and frustration. Hopefully this film will force SeaWorld to admit the truth and give Tilikum to a peaceful retirement. And to treat its animals with more respect.
Run time: 83 mins
In Theaters: Friday 18th October 2013
Box Office USA: $2.1M
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Production compaines: Manny O Productions, Magnolia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Fresh: 117 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 8.1 / 10
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Producer: Manuel Oteyza
Screenwriter: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli B. Despres
Starring: Kim Ashdown as Herself, Ken Balcomb as Himself, Samantha Berg as Herself, John Hargrove as Himself - Former SeaWorld Trainer, Mark Simmons as Himself - Former SeaWorld Trainer, Dean Gomersall as Himself - Former SeaWorld Trainer, James Earl Jones as Himself (archive footage)