copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Animal outlaws: capitalism, containment, and documentary activism

by Tess McClernon

“Watching the video, knowing Orkid, your stomach drops because you know what’s probably going to happen,” explains John Hargrove, former trainer at SeaWorld, San Antonio, and subsequent best-selling author.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Shortly after Hargrove begins narrating the terrifying event unfolding onscreen, the idiom for embodied anticipation is literalized as the camera abruptly drops to the ground. The loss of our visibility heightens the chaos of witnessing, both for the videographer and now for us, viewers of Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013). What we are watching is a video inadvertently caught by a park patron of a near-death encounter between a SeaWorld trainer and two orcas (Orkid and Splash). The importance of this accidental video is two-fold: it foregrounds the deception practiced by marine park corporations and their ability to manipulate images to confirm their version of events. Indeed, the juxtaposition between worker testimonies and corporate rhetoric throughout the film is enlightening. Second, the video is an example of our position in relation to the documentary’s interviewees—at this point in the film, we are aligned with the former employees and researchers, we no longer trust the sanitized spin proffered by SeaWorld. Though Blackfish is now known mostly for its success in shifting public opinion against animals in captivity for amusement and profit, its union of viewer with worker is equally disruptive. The documentary encourages a radical empathy that shifts blame away from low-wage workers and commoditized animals and back onto the corporations that exploit them.

On February 24th, 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at the SeaWorld park in Orlando, Florida was killed by Tilikum, a male orca with a documented history of aggression. Like many viewers around the nation, documentarist Gabriela Cowperthwaite found the news story both horrifying and incomprehensible.[2] The incident prompted her to investigate the tragedy, which necessitated looking into the systemic problem of animals as entertainment and profitable commodities. The documentary focuses on the potentially dangerous psychical repercussions of pod separation and captivity, and the consequences of covering up an orca’s past transgressions. As we learn about the first marine parks in North America through to the latest incident at Sea World, Orlando, it becomes clear who/what are dispensable when maintaining a corporate veneer of safety and education.

Blackfish engages with activist discourse begun by other animal rights documentaries—particularly those concerned with captive cetaceans. Blackfish distinguishes itself from the others by its spectacular monetary returns,[3] its ubiquity on television and in movie theaters, and, most importantly for the sake of this essay, for incorporating a nuanced pro-worker perspective. Documentaries like Lolita: A Slave to Entertainment (Tim Gorski, 2003), The Whale (aka Saving Luna, Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, 2011), and The Cove (Louie Psihoyos, 2009),[4] resemble each other in their use of stock footage of cetaceans in the wild, interviews with those affected by the malpractice of marine parks, and several shared witnesses that testify to the dangers of captivity and the parks’ “willing partner discourse”[5] (i.e. success in presenting the human and animal as working together). A lively activist spirit is effective and contagious in each of these films, which forces us to reckon with previously held beliefs about what constitutes animal abuse. Thus the patron video is an illuminating insight into the very thesis of Blackfish’s argument: unofficial modes of information, transmitted from those outside the corporate sphere, are to be relied upon when attempting to make sense of traumatic, almost always preventable,[6] catastrophes. Indeed the work of activist texts speaks to the continued necessity of documentary films and activism as an art practice.

Just like us

Among the handful of memoirs and exposés written on SeaWorld as a dangerous space for workers, animals, and patrons, are two critical book-length studies on the marine park: Susan Davis’ Spectacular Nature, which examines SeaWorld as a corporate entity, and Jane Desmond’s Staging Tourism. Desmond’s work is a particularly formative text for those interested in analyzing SeaWorld from a critical cultural studies perspective. Though her book is about various types of tourism practiced by westerners, her examples range from Americans vacationing in Hawaii, as well as less traditionally exotic experiences that she calls “nature tourism”—marine parks, aquaria, and other sites that give the illusion of natural habitats.[7] She includes in her analysis circus-like events and other activities that require paid admission to witness animals on display or performing. The opportunities to temporarily visit an “other” (species, cultures, nature) are united by our insistence on witnessing tradition and nature no matter the mediated mode.

For Desmond, human and animal bodies perform tourism, thus she is cognizant of the similarities between animals on display and their human analogs. Though SeaWorld disavows the labor of its employees—whale shows are presented as great fun, a collaborative encounter between two willing participants unites its human patrons and mammals on display through a family-friendly rhetoric. The animals are like us—they have family units, they are gendered,[8] in heteronormative relationships, and produce offspring. The visual and cultural signifiers of family entice patrons to anthropomorphize the mammals, to see ourselves in them, thus rendering the tourism of species less radical than it would appear. The family friendly rhetoric not only effaces the labor of the trainers, it also successfully shields patrons from what would normally be considered an ecstatic, sublime experience—being up close to orcas. Blackfish contradicts SeaWorld’s self-promotion and the false sense of security we may feel from commodifying animals through expert testimony and interviews with researchers (many of whom explicitly state their unwillingness to approach orcas in the wild and insist on observing boundaries). Like other forms of tourism, however, the whale shows, or the parks more broadly, become a seemingly safe place for us to project our ideologies onto an “other.”

According to Desmond, then, an implicit bargain is struck between patrons and the SeaWorld corporation: we disavow the corruption that undergirds the spectacle and simultaneously accept their claims that differences between animals and humans are minimal. SeaWorld both capitalizes on a specific demographic as well as encourages their cyclical return.[9] The consumers that typically patronize SeaWorld are straight, middle- to upper-class families.[10] Neutralizing the difference in speciesism, SeaWorld suggests that the relationships between their customers and the animals, as well as between their trainers and the animals, and even among the animals, resemble a nuclear unit, much like the consumers themselves. As Blackfish, Desmond, and those interviewed for the documentary attest, this vision of nuclear harmony disavows the practice of pod separation and what we know about their social structures in the wild. According to researchers, orcas are matriarchal, their calves mature and remain close to their pod for their entire lives, and they thrive on these relationships. Blackfish stresses the incongruity of corporate presentation and lived experience by the orcas through loss as a thematic concern—it is not just the performances or the uncomfortable tanks, but the loss of communication and ability to partake in familial relationships typical in the wild.

Tilikum, Luna, and Willy: animals as entertainment

Teaching a killer whale to swim with a human being and do tricks in exchange for food was invented on the Seattle waterfront in 1965.”[11]

The history of animals as entertainment is rife with slaughter, confinement, monetary profit, and exploitation. In John Berger’s seminal essay, “Why Look at Animals?” he briefly sketches an extensive history of how we look at and relate to animals.[12] Drawing on a varied sample of artistic representations, the modern institutionalization with the onset of zoos, and their current status as commodity or entertainment, his article stresses the parallelism between the ubiquity of animal imagery and their subsequent disappearance from human life. Berger views our present-day engagement an unfortunate moment between humans and animals, who once played a great role in our lives either through myth, or later, husbandry.[13] For Berger, the animal behind the cage—or the orca in the tank—is “rendered absolutely marginal.”[14] When we look at animals, do we efface their observations of us?

As Berger stresses, part of our engagement with animals, especially in the last two hundred years, includes observation—we like to look at animals. Peppered throughout his analysis are examples of animals as represented through different media. Indeed, when we take a moment to reflect, some of our knowledge of orca behavior comes from popular forms of entertainment—specifically, cinema. Culturally, we do not think of killer whales (or any mammal from the dolphin family) as posing a danger to our well-being. Consider the popular fictional representation of an orca in Free Willy (Wincer, 1993), a formative text for our perception of large marine mammals. Free Willy exposes the dual role of cinema in the study of animals: movies in which they are featured, and movies as an activist method (both of which mirror the great cinematic binary: documentary and fictional modes of filmmaking).

Free Willy is a peculiar case study, so effective it eventually led to the actual freeing of its orca star.[15] On quite the opposite end of the spectrum is Orca (1977), a shameless imitation of Jaws (Spielberg, 1975). The snippet included in Blackfish serves as the single humorous moment, as Orca longs to scare us by replacing a man-eating shark with an orca. Following in the success of Flipper—the television show starring a dolphin—the attempted terror of Orca is all the sillier. While Free Willy caters to our ideas about orcas (and dolphins) as dog-like and not known to inspire fear in humans, we have not completely invented our notions about orcas. Historical records attest to the demeanor we attribute to them, too. A researcher interviewed in Blackfish states that there are no recorded incidents of an orca attacking a human in the wild. Carl Safina’s recent book on the emotional lives of whales, among other mammals, Beyond Words (2015), relates a scene of small boaters being left in peace by the orcas of Puget Bay—it seems we scare them more than they should scare us (Safina informs us that at one point marine researchers considered calling them “panda whales”).[16] Yet, in The Whale the eponymous orca, Luna, is killed by humans, and Blackfish details the horror of human life taken by a cetacean.[17] Both documentaries testify to preventable disasters, as well as the (inevitable) heartbreak of fraternizing with a species we know little about.

We could deduce that twenty-four hour access to “reality” animal programs or modern wildlife documentaries would expose us to disappearing habitats, or at the very least, provide an education on various species. To be sure, the presence of animals on television is not a new phenomenon (in fact, the Animal Planet cable network celebrates its 20th anniversary this year), but as Jan Christopher Horak elaborates in an article on animal television programs, we may in fact experience the opposite of enlightenment via exposure, or something like desensitization to the plight of our planet’s species.[18] Like Berger, Horak senses that the more present animals are in visual culture, the less we experience them in our daily lives. As animals have participated in cinema since its inception—the Muybridge experiments—we, and Horak, ask whether we have normalized animals. Do SeaWorld commercials and advertisements represent what we are comfortable with (animals in captivity for profit)? If their ads are part of a larger visual cacophony, then we need activist texts like Blackfish to shout through the noise. As Blackfish attests and then debunks, SeaWorld promises us that the orcas are living longer, happier lives in captivity compared to the wild. The following section illustrates the power of family-friendly rhetoric and the ramifications of decades-long captivity.

Case study on Lolita, the loneliest whale on the planet

Before Flipper undoubtedly influenced our cultural beliefs about (and affection for) cetaceans in the 1960s, Americans had been exposed to the display of marine mammals for at least a century. In Boston during the 1860s, the Aquarial Gardens introduced patrons to a Beluga whale and a porpoise; this was followed by dolphin training in Florida in the 1930s. Marineland in California and Seaquarium in Florida were prototypical entertainment spaces, which ushered in SeaWorld, San Diego in the 1960s.[20] After ascertaining the financial gain from commodifying orcas, a particularly harrowing moment in the history of whale capture occurred in Penn Cove, August 8th, 1970. Approximately 80 whales were captured, many died and were subsequently sunk (though they washed ashore and became public knowledge), and seven calves “were lassoed, harnessed, and lifted out of Penn Cove…They were sold for a reported $20,000 each to marine parks in Texas, Japan, Australia, Miami, and England.”[21] Images from this massacre appear in many documentaries and television specials on marine mammals. In fact, one of the men present that day is an interviewee in both Blackfish and Lolita—he tearfully confesses it was “the worst thing” he has ever done. He claims the sounds the whales emitted while being separated was the catalyst for his understanding the depth of the cruelty inflicted by trappers and the corporations that employed them. The trauma of that single event continues to reverberate today with lethal ramifications for many marine park trainers across the world—several of those captured in Penn Cove have sired calves or are still working in parks.

One of the seven “lassoed calves” was Lolita. Lolita: A Slave to Entertainment, an activist work, created by animal rights advocates with backgrounds in art and filmmaking, and was screened at many film festivals in an effort to call attention to the reality of Lolita’s condition. In order to shed light on what was then a three decades-long situation,[22] they had to expose the conditions in which she lives and affectively suggest her suffering. Her tank, according to the film (which is substantiated by other sources, as well as their own investigative research into the park), is hardly bigger than a standard hotel swimming pool. The film cleverly conveys a growing sense of claustrophobia, which speaks to the condition of captivity more extensively, especially if we consider other large mammals, like elephants in zoos, for example. With the use of animated graphs and conflicting quotes from the owner of Miami Seaquarium, the film creates an embodied experience; our physical discomfort is a testament to the power of Lolita's images, as well as the catastrophe that is Lolita’s life. A gnawing sense of urgency to release her—the aim for the filmmakers and activists—is evoked through repeated visual reminders of her confinement. We see her listless body float through the water slowly, shots of audiences sitting above the length of the tank, which emphasizes the lack of shade and width of the small pool, and we learn about the horrifying fate of her “husband” Hugo.

Lolita informs us that after the Miami Seaquarium obtained Lolita, she was placed with a male orca, the first captured whale on the East Coast.[22] Hugo and Lolita were made to perform together as “husband and wife”—her name purposefully sexualized to connote her relationship to an older, male whale (à la the pubescent love of Humbert Humbert). Hugo, however, displayed signs of severe depression and at one point attempted to ram his way out of their tank. Though he broke through the wall, he was unsuccessful in escape. A few years later he tried the same thing—repeatedly ramming his head into the wall of their tank. He killed himself—researchers and the filmmaker assert that it was a suicidal act. To support what initially seems like a hyperbolic assessment—not to mention the kind of human intelligence it attributes to the orca—the filmmaker interviewed Ric O’Barry (the former Flipper trainer). Part of O’Barry’s transformation from trainer to activist, he states, was caused by a similar suicide of a dolphin—she refused to come up for air, essentially asphyxiating herself. Hugo’s death is an unfortunate metaphor for the desire to escape—he breaks the barrier to kill himself rather than continue living in the tank and under oppressive conditions. The familial assignations by the marine parks are morbid reminders of what is now lost for captive orcas and the forced interactions they must endure for sustenance.

The labor of performance

The labor of the daily performances warrants serious consideration and both Desmond and Blackfish investigate its procedures. Part of the job of a trainer means daily interaction with the orcas. The bonds formed with whales are a particular focus in Blackfish and it includes statements from former trainers about the cruelty of separating the orcas from them, too.[24] And as orcas are affectionate and seek attention from humans, the trainers necessarily become invested in the fates of their companions.

SeaWorld offers four shows daily, each with a loose routine. Desmond describes it as structured improvisation stating that

“the necessity for structured improvisation is not just to keep the trainers interested. If the whales become accustomed to pre-set routines which are then interrupted for any reason, they become belligerent.”[25]

In order to project easy cooperation, they use “intermitted reinforcement,” i.e. economic reasoning applied to an animal—the incentive-based perform-then-feed reward system. These methods are part of the larger system of rewarding the performing cetaceans with food. If the routine is too rigid, a slight mistake could throw the whales into a panic—it might mean no food. This looser style fortifies an illusory control over the animals, and yet it still puts the trainers and whales at risk for violence, hence Brancheau’s death.[26] For the performances and whale ballets to run smoothly requires mutual cooperation (and many of the trainers mistake this cooperation for genuine affection, as they testify in these activist documentaries).

In both her article and book-length study, Desmond writes about the punctum for her during the whale and trainer performance.[27] The whale shoots out of the water with the trainer on its rostrum, both having swum deeply in order to gain momentum. Indeed, it is the first instance, not the second, that Desmond recalls as special, given its surprise to her—the second rendition is preceded by the trainers calling out to the audience to get their cameras “ready” for the trick is performed again to be recorded by patrons.[28] For this viewer, however, the punctum is a split-second microcosm that contains the long and shameful history of imposing capitalist systems on animals in captivity, as Tilikum urgently waves to the audience.[29] Blackfish includes the last few minutes of Brancheau’s life, as she tries to get Tilikum to perform for food. He performs the trick asked (to go around and perform a “pectoral wave”—the whale swims sideways, lifts his right flipper and looks like he is waving to the audience near him), but he does not hear the whistle that signals him to stop, and goes all the way around the pool waving, essentially bungling the trick. Tilikum’s desperation, his almost manic drive to complete another trick, is caused by his hunger and his knowledge that the time for food is almost up (according to one trainer reviewing the footage, the orcas know when feeding is almost over because they can taste the saltiness of the water, and hear the ice cubes jangling in the near-empty bucket of fish).

Within this brief moment, Brancheau’s fate is sealed, as is Tilikum’s. Despite SeaWorld’s cowardly public-relations spin on Brancheau’s death—her ponytail was too long (and thus proved too tempting to the whale?)—many believe Tilikum snapped after a long day of frustration, rebellion, and hunger. Yet, the adherence to protocol killed her—when Tilikum returns to Brancheau, she displays no emotion and does not offer him any fish, both techniques are used to convey the trainer’s displeasure to the orca. Disallowing trainer flexibility in any given situation is corporate hubris, which results in the deaths and physical impairment of laborers and animals. Rigidity is lethal for those not part of the corporate sphere that enforces it.

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] 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.

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 thatit 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.


1. John Hargrove, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, Sea World, and Blackfish, Palgrave Macmillan, New York: NY, 2015. [return to text]

2. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, “Why I Made ‘Blackfish,’” CNN, October 28th, 2013, accessed February 24th, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/23/opinion/blackfish-filmmaker-statement/.

3. It grossed $2,073, 582, a not insignificant sum for this genre, even today with several finally achieving theatrical distribution. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=blackfish.htm

4. Lolita, which will be addressed later in this essay, is an important comparison here, as it is about a marine park in Florida, the Miami Seaquarium, that currently houses the oldest captive whale in the US: Lolita. The Whale is a somber story of our inability to “live and let live”—Luna, the orca, was separated from her pod and apparently enjoyed the company of humans. His life was put at risk by boaters, whose propellers on the boat’s underside could kill her—this was intensified by Luna’s desire to approach humans. Despite Vancouver Island’s protest against boating in that area, Luna did die from getting caught in propellers. And The Cove, like Blackfish, features the impassioned Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer previously employed by the television show Flipper. While The Cove makes a case against unnecessary dolphin hunting that kills the cetaceans en masse each year, it is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper. To be sure, dolphins and orcas share a similar fate: “swim with the dolphin programs,” captivity and forced performances, and other such abuses, are imposed on dolphins in the name of capital.

5. Jane Desmond, Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display from Waikiki to Sea World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999: 245. Although Desmond does not fully explicate this phrase, it best captures the relationship between trainer and orca, as one that is forced, but never openly acknowledged. The orca shows are designed to show off the orca and trainer working together, performing spectacular feats in unison.

6. In a montage of disaster the proceeds after the patron video discussed above, it is clear that all the disasters between park patrons, former trainers, and captive cetaceans would have been easily avoided if such amusement spaces did not exist.

7. Desmond, 146.

8. Or radically not—see Desmond page 248 for an analysis of the way Shamu is gender ambiguous so that any whale can fit the bill—less stress is placed on the breeding process, so long as a baby whale is available and can play Shamu.

9. Both Davis and Desmond note that minorities and those with less access to dispensable income do not patronize SeaWorld. However, varied class positions and races patronize theme parks, thus the argument that SeaWorld both caters to a specific crowd as well as encourages that crowd to return.

10. Jane Desmond, "Performing 'Nature': Shamu at Sea World," in Cruising the Performative: Interventions Into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality. ed. Sue-Ellen Case, Philip Brett, and Susan Leigh. Foster. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. According to Desmond’s study from the mid-1990s, a typical day at SeaWorld would cost approximately $100 for a small family.

11. Christopher Frizzelle. “It's Time to Free Lolita, a Puget Sound Killer Whale That's Been Held Captive in Florida for 45 Years," The Stranger, September 30th, 2015, accessed February 24th, 2016, http://www.thestranger.com/features/feature/2015/09/30/22939219/its-time-to-free-lolita-a-puget-sound-killer-whale-thats-been-trapped-in-miami-for-45-years

12. John Berger, "Why Look at Animals?", About Looking, New York: Pantheon, 1977.

13. Yet, despite all of the history between us and animals, Berger suspects we are short-sighted, often not considering relations past the 1800s. Indeed “to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards millennia.” John Berger, "Why Look at Animals?", About Looking, New York: Pantheon, 1977; 1980: 2.

14. Ibid.

15. Desmond, fn 31, Chapter nine, 311.

16. Carl Safina, Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel, New York City: Henry Holt and Company, 2015. I mention this term to stress that killer whale is an unfortunate misnomer and “panda” connotes a mammal that poses no real threat to human life.

17. Although Orca is now seen as silly, it is possible that Blackfish terrifies us all the more for demystifying our beliefs about the possibility for relationships to form between humans and captive animals.

18. Jan Christopher Horak, “Wildlife Documentaries: From Classical Forms to Reality TV,” Film History: An International Journal, 2006.

19 Lauren Carroll and Louis Jacobson, “Sea World says their whales live as long as wild ones do,” Politifact Florida, March 24th, 2015, accessed February 24th, 2016, http://www.politifact.com/florida/statements/2015/mar/24/seaworld/seaworld-says-their-whales-live-long-wild-whales-d/.

20. Desmond 242

21. Frizzelle, np.

22. She has now been performing daily for over 45 years.

23. Frizzelle, np.

24. John Hargrove, a prominent interviewee in Blackfish went on to write a best-selling memoir about his time at SeaWorld: Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. His testimony of the orcas being separated is particularly affective.

25. Desmond, 226.

26. Desmond, 226.

27. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, Hill & Wang, 1980.

28. Desmond, 230.

29. Ric O’Barry states in Blackfish that withholding food is food deprivation, though we often don’t recognize it as such.

30. See their point-by-point rebuttal to the documentary which ends up inadvertently offering further information about their shady business practices in regards to the health and upkeep of the orcas. Both the response from SeaWorld and Cowperthwaite’s response can be found here: http://www.blackfishmovie.com/news/, accessed February 24th, 2016.

31. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington, IN; Indiana University Press, 1991: 83.

32. The orcas are quite close to the viewing area, offering patrons a rare, non-performative encounter up-with orcas. Her/his motivation to film was set-up by the parameters outlined by the park—as Desmond notes, they encourage constant recording (as do many tourist destinations) even warning patrons moments in advance to pick up their cameras. Thus, when the trainer is hauled into the water and the playfulness turns to danger, it takes the videographer a moment to register the situation. Once it becomes clear that the trainer’s life is at risk, the camera drops; it is picked up once other trainers are alerted to the situation and resumes filming her ensuing rescue.

33. Desmond, 222.

34. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991: 38-45.

35. Jameson, 38-45; Desmond, 219.

36-37. Alexander Wilson, “The Betrayal of the Future: Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center,” in Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom, ed. Eric Smoodin. New York: Routledge, 1994: 119. “Almost all of the workings in Disney World are hidden from the spectator…[m]iles of underground corridors—‘utilidors’ in Disney parlance—transport workers, supplies, utilities, and telecommunications to the various parts of the ‘Total Vacation Kingdom.’”[37] Wilson’s description reads like a scene from Jia Zhanke’s The World (2004), a film that details the hidden routines and lives of theme park performers.

38. Desmond, 218.

39. Desmond, 225.

40. Zac Estrada, “Vandals Hilariously Change Freeway Sign to Read ‘Sea World Sucks,’” Jalopnik. May 27th, 2014, accessed on September 5th, 2016 http://jalopnik.com/vandals-hilariously-change-freeway-sign-to-read-sea-wor-1582103018.

41. Zimmermann, np.

42. Thomas Waugh, "Why Documentary Filmmakers Keep Trying to Change the World, or Why People Changing the World Keep Making Documentaries," in Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary, ed. Thomas Waugh. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1984:­­­­ xiv.

43. Waugh, xiv.

44. Alexandra Juhasz, "Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary," in New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, ed. Kate Nash, Craig Hight, and Catherine Summerhayes. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014: 43-4.

45. Juhasz, 44.

46. Juhasz, 47.

47. This is a link to a time-lapse film, shot by activists who then played their film at the CCC hearing in order to contradict SeaWorld’s claims. In the film, a whale, for several minutes, motionlessly floats in the pool as the audience looks on. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVTwe2HZ4UY

48. Though many, including Cowperthwaite worry that though the traditional show will no longer continue in San Diego. See Joshua Emerson Smith, “’Blackfish’ Director wary of Sea World plan,” The San Diego Tribune, November 9th, 2015, accessed February 24th, 2016, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2015/nov/09/gabriela-copwerthwaite-seaworld-blackfish-whales/.

49. Jenny Staletovich, “Lolita, Miami Seaquarium killer whale, is declared endangered,” Miami Herald, February 4th, 2015, accessed February 24th, 2016, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article9304634.html.

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