Containing the uncontainable

The thematic and formal exploration of containment is prominent in several animal activist works. To challenge SeaWorld’s sloganeering about safety within their marine parks, Blackfish accentuates the fleeting and the contingent—it purposefully emphasizes accidents and revealing mistakes like the inclusion of Brancheau’s last hour and the patron video discussed earlier. Cowperthwaite and crew display images we are not meant to see: images of the tanks, archival footage, and home movies shot by patrons on cellphone or consumer video camcorders. They recycle images from now-forgotten television news sources, repositioning the context to underscore the trauma of these incidents. SeaWorld subjects employees to a lethal game of chance—we see footage of a trainer hauled under water by an angry orca—an incident that lasted for several terrifying minutes. The videos taken by spectators convey a perspective that news sources will not and often cannot capture. During these moments in Blackfish,we are helpless, inactive, and incapable of stopping what we see. Our place resides with the witnesses, a disruptive and passive position for us.

Through its formal structure, Blackfish puts forth the possibility of lax hiring practices by the corporation, and that the training the employees receive fails to prepare them to “train” orcas. Through unstated means, the Blackfish crew obtained old training videos for employees and trainers. Magnetic decay and its agedness connote that the documentary’s use of the footage may not be sanctioned, and offers a glimpse behind machinations we are not supposed to see. By conjecture alone, we can imagine one of the former employees turned activists electing to share this material with the creators of Blackfish. SeaWorld often unwittingly incriminates itself in an effort to publicly defend its business practices and protocols,[30][open endnotes in new window] and the tapes prove to be no exception. The explanatory videos gloss over the lethal and near-death incidents of the past, they perpetuate faulty knowledge about cetaceans in captivity, and they project a veneer of corporate inclusion with special attention to the safety and happiness of their employees—it is another instance of bombastic family-friendliness.

An extreme juxtaposition between the more official footage, like the decaying videotape welcoming employees to SeaWorld, and the patron videotape described earlier resemble in aesthetic and content much of what comprises Blackfish—personal videos, surveillance footage, and images captured by cameras in the orca tanks. While the film shifts between official and unofficial footage, we also oscillate between two documentary gazes: accidental and helpless. For Bill Nichols, the accidental gaze veers dangerously close to a type of gawking, as “it depends on an ethics of curiosity for its duration.”[31] However, the videographer starts out filming a charming encounter between an off-duty trainer and two orcas.[32] The blurriness between gazes attests to the intricacies of home video, of filming in hyper-official spaces, and capturing images that do not conform to a mediated corporate story. Thus, part of the importance of relying on nonofficial images and potentially illicit videotapes is precisely the lack of premeditation, which often reveals violence, unpredictability, and the failure of protocol and food deprivation. The images reveal a gray area, or the type of blurriness SeaWorld disavows: we are made aware that protocol cannot replace flexibility, that corporate policies defy freedom, and that profit triumphs at the expense of human and animal life. Part of what makes these moments frightening is the piercing break with the planned and structured. The routinized environment SeaWorld promises us upon entrance shatters.

Blackfish also figuratively breaks the tanks that contain the orcas, as their bodily oppression is revealed through a repetition of interjected images of the transportation of orcas from their natural habitat to alien exhibition spaces. Several quick sequences—seemingly taken from local news sources, as they are presented in small, digestible formats—reveal helicopters carrying whales in stretchers, and then slowly lowering them into cages for transportation. Predictably, the reporters seem less concerned with stopping what they witness and more interested in reporting it as an interesting fact—Florida just received a new orca, for example. Nightly news reports cannot contribute to resistance, as the format is integrated into a capitalist circuit in its aim for ratings and profit. Rather, news sources normalize what could be radical (and disturbing) images within a context of anticipation for a visit to the marine park that houses the orca. Blackfish defies this style of reportage by rejecting sanitized framing—when displaced from the narrative of nightly news, the images are once more unsettling and reveal a much different story.

Nightly news report. Stock footage of orcas in their natural habitat.

Dorsal fins collapse in captivity.

Index of the Penn Cove trauma.

Removed from the framework of reportage, we are asked to consider what we see—orcas being displaced from their natural habitats. Blackfish repeatedly includes images taken next to a tank, or within it, forcing us to contemplate their narrow confines. Their new home environments—the tanks at marine parks—are often intercut with stock footage of orcas swimming in formation in the ocean. This footage is also used in other activist documentaries and television specials to contrast the majesty of their existence with the criminal size of their cells. In the stock footage their dorsal fins stand upright, which signals the bodily harm done to orcas in captivity. The researchers in Blackfish explain to viewers that the orcas' fins are always collapsed in captivity because they can no longer swim as fast or as far as they do in the wild. Their collapsed dorsal fins index the trauma of the original event—the Penn Cove massacre—as well as the continued practice of illegal capture and breeding.

We would not be able to enjoy the controlled environment of marine parks if they were not set so far apart from our reality—in the case analyzed by Desmond, the urban space of San Diego. Buffered by “acres of parking, a long winding access route, and an undeveloped belt of greenery, SeaWorld is similarly psychologically set apart.”[33] A beautifully assembled and manicured park, this world unto itself eradicates the threat of violence the same way that it choreographs copasetic duets between animals and humans for the daily performances. Part of Blackfish’s or Lolita’s radical intervention includes breaking through these barriers—like Russ Rector’s backdoor entrance to Miami Seaquarium, an event I will return to later. Blackfish sets its focus on the subterranean, normally opaque systemization (and labyrinthine history) of the park. Desmond describes the experience as satisfying a nostalgia for an “Edenic community,” structured like an ideal small town. However, the longing for a picturesque, Reagan-era ideal is, in itself, a fantasy. Because it never existed, what we experience at SeaWorld (and perhaps at Disney parks, too) is a false promise, that the past we have invented will somehow return in the future. The marine parks and amusement spaces produce a reactionary vision, and they propose a utopia built on other impossible (and suspicious) fantasies.

This vision of the world in miniature is part of a legacy of curious capitalist spaces, some of which originate from cinema: the Disney empire echoes the illusionist quality of cinema and emerged from animation film. Film theorists and Marxist scholars have, for some time, given thought to capitalist constructions that obscure reality outside their confines. Indeed, both modernist and postmodernist facades are or were erected in the name of classist isolation. Fredric Jameson’s description of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles echoes the artificiality of SeaWorld. For Jameson, the luxury hotel is an embodiment of a certain kind of postmodern attempt to build a self-enclosed city within the hotel space. It purposely disavows the poverty and historical remnants encircling its edifice.[34] Likewise, Sea World, San Diego, erases “urban components like crime, dirt, pollution, noise, and different groups of people with competing needs.”[35] Concurrently ignoring needs outside, within its walls invisible workers are part of a system hidden from them. Alexander Wilson’s 1994 study of the Disneyland site in California, as well as the EPCOT Center in Orlando, Florida (a city built around peculiar pseudo-city spaces, as it also houses the other major SeaWorld), uncovers an elaborate system beneath the parks.[36-37] And apparently, at the entrance to SeaWorld, consumers are greeted with a sign that reads: SeaWorld is “not just another park, it’s another world.”[38]

Distraction is key toward redirecting our attention away from the realities of an amusement park. However, Blackfish picks up on the panoply of screens and lingers on the frames within frames inside the park—specifically, on the platform where the trainers perform. Huge screens are mounted above the trainers and used to enhance the view for those with poor seats. The screens display the action on the stage, with the trainers interacting with the whales. These screens are not merely digital binoculars for the audience, as they are placed throughout to perpetuate constant distraction. Audiences are left with no time to contemplate the spectacle before them. The exhibition/performance space secures isolation from the outside world.

The performances are a crucial component to the utopia SeaWorld purports to offer, as they physically and visually embody the union of human and sea mammal. The whale ballets solidify the notion of animal/human harmony and encourage a disavowal of species. The trainers and whales perform incredible feats in unison, sutured together as the perfect, symbiotic team. Their mutual happiness is declared over the loud speaker. In much the same way that the park models itself on and esteems the heteronormative, nuclear family, the whale ballets “in terms of timing, visual focus, and sound score underline the concept of loving partners that frames the traditional heterosexual ballet duet.”[39] Incredibly, the trainers and workers performing wholly unnatural feats goes unremarked. The audience and emcee openly marvel at the tricks, yet, taken out of context, or when given serious thought, the feats become absurd, surreal moments. The screens in Blackfish remind us of how we are sold this delusion, and of the distraction necessary to induce a forgetfulness or lack of awareness about the reality of the performances. The construction of these activist documentaries, and their reliance on nonprofessional imagery and accidental inclusions, as well as the activist impulse of its subjects contradicts the illusion of pleasant orca and human interactions.

A more literal example of dismantling barriers is Russ Rector’s “break in.” Tim Gorski interviewed Rector for Lolita and Rector broke into the Miami Seaquarium in order to illegally film and document images of Lolita’s tank. What these images reveal is also sadly symbolic of marine parks generally. The tank is leaking, pipes are exposed, and signs warning of high voltage all signify a failure to contain. Despite efforts to suppress the violence of Lolita’s situation, the surface structure reveals a different story—one that not only risks Lolita’s life, but puts the patrons and many children in danger of harm should the structure collapse.

Both films mitigate the stridency of the image offered by the sea parks and confirm Desmond’s analysis. We arrive at a grayer area after watching the activist documentaries, chiefly because of their sympathy for both laborers and orcas (it is a murky space much like that provided by the unofficial footage). Desmond sees the harmonious union of orca and human as an impossible utopian dream, and SeaWorld and Miami Seaquarium erase all differences between species in the name of positive family mottos. However, we need not adopt either an increased form of speciesism or a whole-hearted denial of difference. Rather, and the films support this position, we need more fluid, dialectical perspectives that recognize the animals as different (but not separate), deserving our respect, not our domination. Exploitation in all its manifestations—including trainers and employees of marine parks—is given due attention and Blackfish necessarily advocates for the consideration of laborers and animals.


A few months after the release of Blackfish in both theatres and on television, vandals climbed on top of a freeway sign in San Diego, California, and painted over an exit for SeaWorld so it read “Sea World Sucks” (instead of Sea World Drive). [40] Of the actions taken since the documentary’s release, this is by far the most amusing form of protest. Considering its target—a major corporation with ties to equally powerful corporate sponsors—activists against SeaWorld take risks when they openly defy the marine park. Tim Zimmermann, producer and co-writer of the documentary, would classify this act as part of the “Blackfish effect.”[41] The Blackfish effect refers to how the documentary has inspired action, a phenomenon which includes everything from celebrity endorsements on social media to publicize their support, patrons avoiding or leaving SeaWorld parks earlier than planned, school programs and children writing letters or coloring pictures in favor of the documentary’s message, activists protesting outside the entrances, and sponsors being encouraged to cut ties with SeaWorld. These examples and others perpetuate a new cultural attitude toward the use of animals for amusement purposes and keeping them in captivity. Though it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which Blackfish has altered public awareness, the legible effects may perpetuate its legacy for years to come. Consider that the children across the U.S. who were moved enough to publicly display their support will eventually grow up—it’s possible that activist art will play a crucial role in the abolition of amusement spaces that financially benefit from animals. Blackfish is a filmic example of a text that can transcend its production history and can guide us through scholarship on the idea of activist works.

As of October 2013, Blackfish had grossed a little over two million dollars. Its anomalous financial return and distribution through several different viewing platforms set Blackfish apart from most documentaries, let alone explicitly activist works. With its financial success and mainstream appeal, how then do we locate Blackfish within the tradition of “committed” cinema?[42] Can we think of it as activist in the same sense as Lolita? For his essay on radical documentaries, Tom Waugh outlines broad criteria for considering whether a work is activist, or, in other words, committed. The films in question openly declare their solidarity with the subjects of their films; they participate in actively ongoing political struggles; and in order to “escape the entrapment of traditional ideological forms and work,” the documentaries must proceed “with full awareness of the contradictions in play, hammering out the shapes of an evolving new revolutionary ideology around those struggles.”[43] Lolita was produced and created by activist groups, it interviews activists, traverses free online platforms for viewing, and serves as an influence over the films that succeed it. However, with Waugh’s criteria in mind we can start to articulate the ways that Blackfish is as activist as its low-budget predecessors. It openly aligns itself with former trainers and enthusiastically participates in advocating for change.

It is also worth remarking on the commonalities between activist works — Blackfish interviews many of the same subjects and uses some of the same stock footage as Lolita. It is a work in dialogue with its forerunners in order to prolong important discourse about animals in captivity. It is not simply a dialogue between the films, as each work gestures outward toward us, the audience. The film demands not only attention, but emotion, investment, and the will to change our behavior. We have discussed the Blackfish effect, but it evidently goes beyond and can be attributed to more than a single film. No doubt that without Lolita and others, the rhetoric and aesthetic qualities of Blackfish would have been different despite its subject matter.

The mosaic of voices contributing to the activist films discussed here confirms the necessity for activist art. Both Waugh and Alexandra Juhasz stress the importance of considering these committed works as art. Juhasz argues that though we may live in a virtual age in which anyone can publicly declare her or his political allegiances, these “lowly bits of evidence” cannot in themselves be art, cannot articulate an argument, and thus are not enough.[44] “Linking, unlike editing, creates associations without depth…excessive expression can no longer be the political goal.”[45] Running parallel to the critiques lobbied against corporate logic and control in Blackfish and Lolita is part of Juhasz’s argument for activist art—we are at less risk of implicating ourselves if our expressions are not posted in the very spaces owned by many abhorrent companies. Of the actions taken after Blackfish, only the celebrity online shout-outs remain rooted in the virtual realm. For a digital work to be activist “it must participate in an artful leaving of the digital so as to allow the body to also engage in a place beyond representation.” [46] Moreover, taking works offline to be distributed and created through varying means resists the homogeneity and conformity so integral to corporate environments.

As of late 2015, SeaWorld has seen an 84% drop in profits and it continues to lose money on ticket sales and stock shares. Blackfish adversely affected the corporation in more than a financial sense—the orca shows are reportedly being discontinued at the end of 2017 in all three locations: San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando. SeaWorld has also dropped their lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission, as they will no longer breed orcas (originally, SeaWorld planned to sue the CCC because of a provision to their approved expansion project, which stipulated that they cease breeding orcas).[47] Though the news is optimistic about the future for cetaceans as entertainment, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s original statement upon learning of the possibility of SeaWorld ending their orca shows is wisely cautious.[48]

Three years after the making of Blackfish it is upsetting to learn that Tilikum is dying, thus ensuring his life will end in a tank rather than a sanctuary for rescued orcas. He has a rare bacterial infection in his lungs. He is believed to be about 35 years old—and while this confirms some statistics about the average adult lifespan of a male orca, many believe it is possible to live several decades longer in their natural habitats.

As for Lolita, she was recently declared part of an endangered species of orcas. Through the Endangered Species Act, activists hoped her new status would provide a much needed loophole that could result in her release from Miami Seaquarium. However, as of June 2016, a judge dismissed Lolita’s case, arguing that animal activists need to change the Animal Welfare Act in order to ever hope for the release of Lolita. At 50, activists would like to see her retire peacefully, in a sea sanctuary where she can swim and live out her life in relative comfort.[49]

To equate visible, tangible change with the success and value of a film is dangerous, and it contradicts much of the anti-capitalist rhetoric espoused by the films. This essay is not arguing such a position. Rather, these powerful changes in the lives of captive orcas are mentioned to end on an optimistic note, one that takes seriously the importance of activist art, considers it a continued necessity, and as a site for radical change. These activist documentaries emphasize the complex relationships between humans and captive animals, taking into account the repercussions of inflicting pain for financial compensation, and exploiting human and animal laborers. This demonstrates how activist art, especially documentaries, continues to effect change in our behavior for the good. Those changes need not be obvious, but progressive and lasting.