"Blackfish" (2013): The Socially-Conscious Shockumentary
I'm beginning to dogmatically believe there's only two kinds of movies: The one's we pay for to spend time with our favorite celebrities; and the one's we pay for to watch shocking forbidden / taboo spectacle. If you provide none, are you really a movie?
I didn't see Blackfish when first released. At the time I was living in Orlando, attending UCF's film school. Our pretentious clique were International Drive snobs. We were ironically fascinated by the aesthetic, and quickly incorporated its influence into our art.
While filming for my current documentary, MONDO MIAMI, I did bump into some protesters at the Miami Seaquarium. They were letting the customers entering the park know that the prize killer whale, Lolita, was essentially a prisoner in a cage.
When I asked the organizer what inspired her to start this month long protest outside the Seaqurium, she said Blackfish was directly responsible for waking her up.
I also vaguely remember hearing people talk about the gruesome deaths of the trainers depticted in the film. And, of course, there's the public relations juggling Orlando's Sea World had to go through for a few years after the release of the film.
Turns out that little documentary was able to persuasively tell its side of the story.
I believe what makes Blackfish work as a movie is its use of shocking footage.
This probably sounds predictable to anybody following my thoughts on this subject. However I believe this simple & predictable pattern highlights the truth of my theory: you're either selling celebrity identification, or shock content.
There's a dramatic sequence in the middle of the film which feels like an onslaught of snuff footage. It's as if they bundled all the scraps of footage — from film reels to high definition video — where captive killer whale's viciously attacked their trainers.
It's hard to watch. And incredibly shocking.
Especially after hearing the stories of the trainers, and the whales; and how smart & emotional the whales are, and how dedicated & passionate the trainers were.
By the time you get to the shocking footage of the killer whale biting the trainer's leg and pulling them underwater... It's hard to not empathize with the trainer and feel as if you're the one being pulled under.
And, of course, we get a villain in the story: the documentary suggests that the mega-corporation known as Sea World has no soul. They rip children away from their families & put them to dance for shitty food & shitty housing.
Regardless of the point of the view of the corporation, that's the tone the movie strikes. And it appears Sea World had an opportunity to participate in the film — which they denied. Probably not the wisest choice as it could've been an opportunity for Sea World.
It always helps your emotional appeal if you have a villian in the shadows.
The montage of pseudo-snuff footage reminds me a lot of a movie I just got in the mail: The Killing of America (1981).
Actually, the montage in Blackfish reminds me of most hardcore atrocity films (from the 50's & 60's) as well as the more gory VHS shockumentaries from the 80's: like Faces of Death, This is America, etc. The way it shows old footage with almost unimpassioned voice over, and it's one relentless horrifying scene after the other...
It's all so eerily similar to an underground mondo movie. But it's not. It's just Blackfish. Or is it?
What distinguishes Blackfish from a movie like The Killing of America is the socially-conscious design.
Blackfish is trying to change public opinion. The Killing of America is not trying to change public opinion about something specific. It's more of a general "scare film."
Although the success of Blackfish echoes the history of shockumentaries, it's not cut from the same cloth. I believe this synchronicity is accidental. But accidental or not, it explains directly a large part of the movie's outreach: people tuned in to be shocked.
Most mondo movies / shockumentaries are made solely for profit. Any virtues arising from the film are either accidental or alibis to protect the producers from nasty lawsuits.
This relationship between shock & virtue is inverted with Blackfish — which centers around virtuous persuasion, using shocking content as a means to an end, as their alibi (to get you in the door).
Even then The Killing of America represents one of the better mondo movies, which has a highly moralistic tone... In this case, about gun control in America. But functionally the movie was like an anti-tourism ad against America.
I believe that's why it was produced by a wealthy Japanese investor, didn't get a huge box-office response in America, but was quite the sensation in in Japan & elsewhere.
Although The Killing of America makes a few good points about America's gun & violence culture... on an aesthetic level, it's a shockumentary to be lurid for the sake of profit. Any other goals the movie may have are simply too abstract or hidden to be effectively stated.
“We were just trying to make a commercial picture about something that bothered all of us.” — the director of The Killing of America, Sheldon Renan
And so, even though Blackfish uses many of the techniques prominent in classical shock documentaries, it's function is completely different.
Functionally, Blackfish is a propaganda film.
Propaganda is a neutral thing, btw. It means you're trying to propagate ideas about changing the world in a specific way.
The Killing of America isn't specific about the change it wants to see enacted.
Blackfish is. This movie was not created for the purpose of re-appropriating lurid footage into a cheaply-made, yet profitable, movie.
It was made to change public opinion about something specific.
Propaganda is not bad. Propaganda is not good. Propaganda is a way of organizing data.
The story of Blackfish is told in the most emotionally-persuasive way possible to reinforce one specific thought: the captivity of killer whales is cruel & unjust.
The movie openly argues that killer whales are sentient beings & should be free as such. And specifically, that Shamu (and all the other killer whales captive in sea-based entertainment parks) be freed into the wild. They place the blame singularly on Sea World and it's orca breeding policies. Unlike Sea World, the movie's motivations are outright stated. The filmmakers are clear about their point-of-view. It's biased & emotional. And they challenge the accused to respond.
There is even a soft call-to-action at the end of the film, depicting ordinary people protesting outside of Sea World... Now I know why I stumbled on that protest group.
Movies are the most powerful form of advertising. Like media theorist Marshall McLuhan said: "Whatever the camera turns to, the audience accepts."
After experiencing a 90 minute dose of high oxytocin (emotional storytelling) & cortisol (shock content), the viewer is ready to accept a call-to-action.
Although the movie never says, "Go out and protest" — the emotional images at the end are enough to suggest what needs to be done to right the wrongs presented in the film.