Blackfish: How media can change humanity

Super Size Me, 2004, The Cove2009, Bowling for Columbine2009 and The Age of Stupid2007.

Each of these documentaries changed the world in some way. Whether through, changing McDonald’s size options, reducing dolphin killings, ending handgun ammunition sales, or enacting a carbon reduction scheme around the world.

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These changes in our society show the power of documentaries as vessels of revolution, and perpetrators of disruptive and dissenting media.

This socially-disruptive force is exemplified by the 2013 documentary Blackfish.

The feature-length film follows the story of Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old orca trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. In 2010 Brancheau was grabbed by the arm, and drowned by the 28-year-old killer whale named Tilikum.

It is revealed throughout the film that Tilikum had already been viciously tortured by other whales, and involved in the deaths of two other people.

But what is most powerful about this film isn’t the sad story of Tilikum or his trainers, or the fact that the film was produced on only $76,000, but the shock waves of change that reverberated around the world.

Previously to Blackfish orcas, or more sensationally named killer whales, were simply objects of attraction. People flocked to these sites of animal captivity to experience the unique phenomenon of witnessing an animal that we can see ourselves in.

As Miller and Bain reveal, with the ability to kiss, nod, listen, and wave, it is unsurprising that orcas are one of the world’s most intelligent animals. With one of the largest brains in the world according to Marino, and so we just can’t get enough of their human-like, intelligent, behaviours.

As academics Rowly and Johnson argue in their article Anthropomorphic anthropocentrism and the rhetoric of Blackfish’, there is the surface level of fascination with anthropomorphic animals, but if researched deeper there is the importance of how human perceptions of these animals shape our own existence.

[W]hile scholars such as Frans de Waal may question anthropocentric anthropomorphism as simply “wishful thinking,” anthropomorphic anthropocentrism suggests that there might be something to what humans are “wishing for” that becomes important to investigate if we are to understand the way anthropomorphic environmental communication artifacts symbolically construct meaningful human existence.”

This reflection back onto ourselves from the captured orcas featured in Blackfish may be the leading factor for its worldwide repercussions.

After the premier of Blackfish at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) formed the structure for a grassroots activism movement that eventually gained the attention of existing campaigns such as the Oceanic Preservation Societyand even celebrities such as Matt Damon and Harry Styles.

With these important social figures and mounting public pressure, in March 2016 SeaWorld announced it would no longer breed orcas, and would begin to phase out ‘theatrical performances’.

It was also announced in 2016 that SeaWorld would partner with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), despite a long history of criticism and accusation.

This activism result also indicates a change in human behaviour and opinion as a result of the documentary. Where once we focused on highly intelligent animals as our favourite viewing attractions, we are beginning to realise that if anything, these animals deserve freedom even more than others.

As Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld stated,

It’s clear to me that society is shifting. People’s view to have these beautiful, majestic animals under human care – people are more and more uncomfortable with that. And no matter what side you are on this issue, it’s clear that that’s shifting, and we need to shift with that.”

Despite this positive shift towards improved animals welfare, a sceptic’s eye must be maintained. In 2016 SeaWorld’s shares and profits dropped to a record low following the activism campaigns. This implies a strategy towards conservation to increase numbers, rather than raise the safety or lifestyles of these animals.

Regardless of the reasons behind SeaWorld’s changes, it is undeniable that the health, well-being and freedom of these captured orcas are gradually increasing as a direct result of Blackfish and the social change it garnered.

The film has also triggered an innovative progress in human thinking. We have finally realised that these intelligent animals can speak, feel, and think; without being bound to human practices of entertainment.

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