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Monday, 13 January 2014

What Is Truth? Perception, Distortion, Reality And The Documentary - Part 2


And welcome back to the second and final part of this article. Ms Smith's article seems to come across quite angry at times, as if she were being missold something. Yet we all know, that a film trailer almost always distorts its source material, in order to get "bums on seats". (And by bums, I mean ticket sales, not the homeless/displaced or disadvantaged in society.)

To all intents-and-purposes, she was judging a book by its cover. Which, she is more than welcome to do, but it will probably end-up making her look extremely silly, as it has done. Unfortunately, she then saw the film, and made her second post  here  which continued on with her feeling cheated.

As I said in Part 1, I think BLACKFISH is a jaw-droppingly impressive and - at times - shocking documentary about how humans think they can control wild animals, for our own needs/enjoyment, and then when said wild animals turn against us, we wonder why. For those who haven't seen it, the film examines a so-called "Killer Whale" (actually, an Orca Whale) called Tilikum. Tilikum was captured by SeaWorld (or at least, people/organisations acting on SeaWorld's behalf) for their Orlando, Florida SeaWorld theme-park.

Now, despite the name "killer whale", whale's aren't generally killers. At least not in the literal-sense of the word. When they live in the wild, they rarely attack human beings, unless provoked. (Just as so many other animals generally wouldn't.) Killer whale's are actually called Orcinus Orca's, which is often shortened to "orca" or "orca's". So, when people talk of "killer whales" and/or "orca's", they're technically talking about the same animal. The reason the names often get interchanged, is probably due to the infamous exploitation film ORCA released in 1977, but rereleased in the USA as ORCA: KILLER WHALE, starring Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling. Like Spielberg's JAWS, it posited the story of one man's attempt to take on one of the animal kingdom's biggest creatures, and to tame or kill it. (You can easily guess which result occurred!)

Tilikum had a history of killing and/or attacking humans, which is indisputable, but this information was either deliberately ignored or covered-up, so that SeaWorld could make money from him. When Tilikum then went onto kill SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, questions began to be asked about Tilikum. What followed, was a seemingly lengthy cover-up by SeaWorld and its staff and other associates working for them/on behalf of them, stating that it was "trainer error" that was the cause, and not Tilikum, despite evidence to the contrary.

The film then discusses and examines the "truth" of who and what Tilikum was, and why a multi-billion dollar sea-park industry such as SeaWorld might decide to be less-than-truthful about the facts, which might bring them into disrepute and or raise public feelings of hatred towards them.

What follows will shock many, and even some of the most hard-hearted of viewers will be shedding tears by the film's powerful emotional sway, irrespective of where you stand on the issues of using animals for entertainment.

Melissa Smith's main criticism seems to be that SeaWorld wasn't allowed to give their side of events; to explain their viewpoint... Except that they were. Several times. And each time, SeaWorld declined to be interviewed, in-front of a camera, or for use as "voice-only extracts" in the documentary. The film explicitly mentions that SeaWorld declined to meet the film-maker on multiple occasions.

If that is the case, then what can a director do? No one can force SeaWorld, or any of its affiliates or representatives to participate. But if they refuse to do so, then they only have themselves to blame, if they feel that their "voice" isn't being heard. With that said, SeaWorld is hardly in a position to "cry wolf" here! The current value of SeaWorld Orlando alone, is valued at $2.5 Billion (US Dollars)! If they are worth even a fraction of that, they can easily hire a P.R. firm to make any announcement or mount a defence against BLACKFISH, should they wish to do so. (The film has grossed a paltry - by comparison - $2.5 Million dollars at the US Box Office. Not bad for a niche documentary, but small-fry against the might of SeaWorld.) And if SeaWorld is that scared by one documentary, potentially tainting their name, then they must be really scared!

Ms Smith goes on to say, that:
This ‘review’ of mine was met with flagrant opposition from most. Some commenters (sic), the minority, offered some valuable information about the subject which I will include here, but most of the replies to my article were declarations that I was ignorant and stupid for assessing a film that I haven’t seen. But here’s the thing—I was really providing my assessment of a mindset that is rapidly gaining momentum in our society. When I first viewed the trailer, I found it highly unsettling, and knew that many novices to the subject of animal behavior, animal welfare, and captive animal criticism would retain many unflattering, one-sided views of more than just the famed aquatic parks.
But your review, wasn't a review: it was a critique, and a poorly-written and sorry-excuse for a critique at that, because you focused your anger on a film trailer, not the film itself. To try and rescue your own neck, by saying that you weren't assessing a film at all, but were in fact assessing "a mindset" is quite frankly someone sounding very desperate.

I'll admit, I'm not that knowledgeable on animal behaviour. I don't know much about animals, other than that which I see on documentaries, or stuff that I read in books or learn from other animal lovers and veterinarians. So, I am by no means trying to make myself out to be more knowledgeable than Ms Smith says she is. However, you can't attack a film, based purely on a trailer. A trailer is, as I said in Part 1, a sales-tool. It is a promotional device, and deliberately aims to entice you, by showing select moments, often deliberately re-edited out-of-their-original-context to heighten the tension and excitement. So, to go after a film, based solely on the trailer, is both facile and very poor judgement. Which is probably why she received so many declarations that she was "ignorant and stupid"!

Ms Smith continues on:
Now that I have seen the film, did it haunt me, move me, or rub my nose in some truth unbeknownst to myself when I wrote my trailer review? No, I have seen at least 80% of the footage that Blackfish offers on Youtube. In fact, Blackfish even left a lot of things out.
So, here we have a claim, that because she's seen the footage on YouTube, that that automatically discounts BLACKFISH as being an unnecessary and worthless documentary? That's like citing Wikipedia as your primary source of knowledge! It's bad researching technique, and you should never rely on sources like that for anything factual, that is worth a damn! And just because Ms Smith had seen most of the footage, that doesn't mean that everyone else had. Ergo, it's essentially an erroneous and frivolous statement to make.

Moving on, she writes:
Was BLACKFISH a brilliant documentary? (No.) All biases aside, the movie seemed to me to be of average PBS TV documentary competency. The film mainly consisted of interviews and footage which, if not seen before or familiar with, may be ‘emotionally powerful’.
Ah, so you are being biased against the film then? And you claim that because you felt it was of average-quality, that that means it's irrelevant. Not only that, but you ridicule it by slating another well-known, and fairly-well acknowledged source of documentary film-making, via attacking the US TV network PBS. Something doesn't seem right here.

My first question to Miss Smith, would be to ask how many documentaries has she ever made? She doesn't need to have made any, to have the right to criticise them, but she does need some kind of background to be able to stand-on before critiquing that which you may not wholly understand. I've not made any films, but I've had a formal education in film history, written reviews for well-known horror film websites, and undertaken film education courses to various degree levels. My knowledge is therefore likely to be far more enlightened, than that of just an ordinary armchair critic, as I have a clear and evidentiary background that I use to backup my views. Anyone can praise or criticise something, but it takes brains and good linguistic skills to explain why you are praising or criticising something, that makes your review more valuable to others.

My next question to ask her, would be: "How did you arrive at your belief that BLACKFISH was an average, barely competent documentary"? From reading her blog article, it seems that because she has done what so many others do - seen something they vehemently disagree with, and then simply discounted it as being valueless, and thus taken-up a contrary position - that that counts as being a "valid" opinion. Well, yes, technically, that stance is acceptable. But it's a knee-jerk reaction to something. If you don't explain how you've arrived at your thoughts/beliefs, then you can't really claim to hold a more worthwhile or important view, than that of your fellow people. You have to justify your stance on issues, for others to be able to take you seriously. Right now, I can't do that with Ms Smith. Her article is merely lip-service riposte to something she doesn't like. There's limited articulation as to why she believes what she does, but justifies her own beliefs by simply slagging-off other views and other people. That's Armchair Criticism 101. It's something anyone can do. It's trivial, and meaningless, and valueless to society. It merits no worth, no attention, and no value being attributed to it.

She says:
Most people who would be inclined to watch this film are likely to have an emotional reaction to some of the footage presented alone. This is absolutely no testament to the filmmaker’s directional ability. Gabriela Cowperthwaite (the film’s director) picked a hot button and emotionally tolling subject that features universally adored ‘cute’ or ‘magnificent’ sea animals.
Again, more derision of the film, through slating the director. A really, really poor choice of words, demonstrates to me - as a reader of her work - that Ms Smith is merely mouthing-off at BLACKFISH, and that anything she says, is irrelevant. It's very much "I don't like it, therefore it's garbage" journalism! It's hackneyed at best, and laughably inept at worst. Ms Cowperthwaite chose a topic that interested her, and thought would make a good film. Documentarians know you can't choose one without the other. If a subject or issue interests you, that doesn't translate to that same subject becoming a good film. Likewise, you may make a great documentary, but if no one cares about the subject under discussion, your film has no merit to it. As for describing Orca's as "universally adored cute", I am staggered at her poor choice of words. "Cute" is not how I'd describe Tilikum, or any other whale. "Magnificent"? Yes, absolutely! "Incredible", "jaw-dropping", "sublime"? Yes, for-sure, but never "cute". A kitten or a puppy or a duckling is cute. A whale is fervently not!

We are now less than half-way through Ms Smith's article, and we now come to her (so-called) "evidence", that demonstrates why BLACKFISH is such a rotten film. Alas, her evidence is anything but.

Under the "misleading claims" section, she uses Exhibit A: that trainers do NOT have special connections to the animals they train. Except they do, in their own, weird and wonderful way.

Anyone who has ever owned a pet, will know that they have a "bond" with that animal. That "bond" is unique, and is demonstrable. The owner can call the pet, and the pet comes to them. The pet behaves well, so it gets a treat from the owner as a reward. When the pet does something bad, it is punished and it "cowers" as an apology. Okay, so this is a very simplified version of what the "bond" is, but it does exist, and can be easily proven. So, any human that had prolonged with one animal, and vice-versa, is almost certainly going to end-up "bonding" as one. That's human (and animal) nature. Everyone wants to be loved, to be endorsed, to be appreciated and cared for. I suspect Orca's are no different. If they can't find it within their own species, they'll look elsewhere. An animal in captivity, forced (trained) to perform tricks, to obtain sustenance, is going to eventually aquiesce. The animal won't intentionally go hungry and deprive itself of the one thing it needs to survive. Nor would a human. There's only so far the human and animal mind can survive without the basic needs of food/drink, warmth, shelter, and companionship, before it turns desperate, and will act-out. So, if doing tricks gets it food, then a whale will do that, even if that trick goes against its natural instinct. It's called self-preservation.

Secondly, according to Ms Smith, BLACKFISH:
makes a false claim about killer whales which, as a whole, are more leery of human presence and generally keep to themselves in natural conditions
Again, the claim isn't actually false or inaccurate. All creatures, animal or human, have a way of living. They all have cultures, a way of life, that is unique to them, and different species will have different "cultural" attributes. Most animals tend to prefer their own company. As do most humans. We make friends with those who are similar to us, either through hobbies and interests, romance, friendship and warmth, intellectual standings, or those who are similar to us in other ways, such as religions and faith, or skin colour, gender or other such links. Why should animals not do the same? Inter-species presence is going to initially seem a threat, because it's someone "not like you" invading your "space". Only when both species have clarified that they do not need to be wary or frightened of the other, will they either live together, or at least accept each other. Hence, why whales and dolphins swim together.

She then goes on to write:
BLACKFISH ultimately criticizes SeaWorld for lying to the public and denying the animal’s aggression when the attacks took place, perpetuating an image of a “cuddly toy” (a term used in the movie while SeaWorld's plush orca gift shop is shown). It's clear that the director, despite intensive research, his little understanding of animals.
Yes, the film does do that, but only at the end of it's 97-minute running time. All creatures can be aggressive. SeaWorld does perpetuate an image of the "cuddly" Orca, (and specifically targets that "image" to kids, and their cash-strapped parents), which is not an inherently true image. It absolutely does anthropomorphise Orca's, and sells this image to children, to adults, and to families, as something "cuddly" that you can take home, and "look after" yourself, when nothing could be further from the truth. Wild Orca's are likely to be magnificent creatures, who will not harm humans, providing humans do not interfere with them or their way of living. It's only us humans that love to interfere and intervene, thinking that we know best about what to do for animals, because we're the so-called "superior" species.

Thirdly, Ms Smith writes:
One of the interviewed trainers says: "In a reputable breeding program, rule number one is that you certainly would not breed an animal that has shown a history of aggression toward humans. Imagine if you had a pit bull who had killed…that animal would have likely been put down…”. To accompany this statement is an animated graphic along with some whimsical carnival music to suggest the bizarre absurdity of what SeaWorld was doing.
Yet, that statement is true. No animal breeder would knowingly and intentionally breed any animal of any species, that had a known history of "problems" or "issues". And Tilikum does have problems - even if those "problems" are mostly caused by SeaWorld keeping him in an under-sized, sensory-deprived sleeping "pod" that keeps him from any kind of social activity and stimulus, other than that of being trained to jump through hoops, for his food, like a glorifed aquatic sea-lion!

Basic Genetics teaches us this. The animated graphic may be simple in tone and it is, but it's an easy way to get the message across. Namely, that through sperm, "bad" genes can (though not necessarily will) be passed-on-down to children, and those "bad" genes stay in the animals family for generations. If Tilikum's sperm is being used to father other Orca's, then those Orca's are likely to feature some of his traits - both the good ones and the bad. You don't need to be a marine-biologist, or zookeeper to know this. It's relatively simple scientific fact!

By the end of Ms Smith's article, she has come to the (false) conclusion, that:
Blackfish expectedly ends with an interviewed person suggesting the callousness of families who obtain enjoyment from seeing animals up close in captivity
I don't know about you, but most people - scientists, biologists, or zookeepers or other animal caretakers - would argue that if you keep any sentient creature away from natural stimulus, in an artificial containment unit, for years at a time, that that creature is almost certainly going to start acting-out and go stir-crazy... sooner or later! Who (or what) wouldn't?! How stupid does Ms Smith think her readers are, to believe otherwise?!

SeaWorld's game is about making money. It does this, by using animals taken from their natural habitat, and made to perform acrobatic tricks and games that are anathema to it, for food and other rewards (love, warmth, attention). These are facts. Indisputable facts! You can cosy-it-up all you want, but that is what SeaWorld do, and we - the public at large - think this is great, and wonderful, and lovely. We are told by these same big, corporate organisations, that these animals are being well-treated, looked-after, and fed the same food they would get in the wild.

Absolute bullshit! No, they are not!

Any animal being kept in an enclosed, or even semi-enclosed space, having its needs tended too by humans, is not being kept in a natural state of affairs. We are anthropomorphising these animals, to make ourselves feel better, that what WE do, is good, so that we don't need to look at the ugly side of companies like SeaWorld, and can laugh-off any negative aspects about how these animals are being kept to entertain us, for our benefit, at their expense!

It's inhuman that we can, in 2013/14, still tell our children, that animals in zoo's and water-parks are being well looked after. That may be the case, in some instances. But for the most, it isn't. SeaWorld, zoo's, and all other similar animal-entertainment businesses are resolutely having to do more, with less money. Just as so many of us are these days, due to the world's economy. With less money, comes less staff, less food, and a (probable) decrease in the quality of upkeep of any animal being kept in these kind of institutions.

As BLACKFISH explicitly shows, Tilikum was deprived of food when he didn't perform to the attained standard SeaWorld staff expected of him. When he did perform, he could tell from the kind of fish he was being given, how much food was remaining. (Just as you can tell when you eat something, for example a packet of crisps, that you near the bottom of the pack, when the crisps start being smaller and in pieces!) What SeaWorld did (and continues to do) is unnatural! It is inhuman! It is against nature! You can justify and  vindicate, and assert all that you want, but it is still not how things are meant to be.

Quite why Ms Smith is so angry against BLACKFISH, I'm not sure. The only conclusion I can arrive at, is that the only reason she is angry, is because - like most things in life - the film didn't fit-in with her own, preconceived notions of what the documentary was supposed to be. If it had arrived at the same conclusions she had, or had explored the same beliefs she held, then she may well have loved it. But that's no justification for criticising something you disagree with. I disagree with Ms Smith, but not only because I think BLACKFISH opens the world's eyes to an international travesty that we don't like to think goes on, but that the film does so, in a way that leaves no doubt that the film-makers intentions were wholly noble. SeaWorld's main priority is not animal preservation and welfare. It's main priority is making money, and lots of it, by using wild animals for exploitation.

No one can justify that.

There is no definitive "truth", and there are no absolute "lies", when it comes to documenting real-world tragedy and horror. Merely, distortions of both. Everything we see, in films or in real-life, is going to be filtered, vetted, censored, questioned and confused by our own upbringing and life-experience. Our brains will confuse and confound us, so even if we are adamant that we think something is true, it may well not be. We will merely be confirming that what we remember is what we remember... which is not the same as what we remember being what actually happened at the time, just a version of the event, that sits well with us.

A documentary like BLACKFISH should absolutely shock and disturb its audience, and I for one, am very glad it did. As I said right back at the beginning of Part 1, sometimes horror film fans need to see (and be shocked by) real-world horror, to remind us, that beneath all the disturbing fictional violence we see, there is a real-world in which real horror regularly takes place. And sometimes, we need to be reminded of that, so that we never take fictional violence for granted.

We must never forget of man's own inhumanity to others.

And on that bleak note, I Thank You for taking time to read this two-part article.

In the next update, I will be bringing you a long-awaited review of the recently released Limited Editions of two of Italian horror's most entertaining cult horror's, namely DEMONS and DEMONS 2 (both by Lamberto Bava). I hope you will return later this month, to read my thoughts. Be seeing you!

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