One of my ‘cunning plans’ for blogging more in November was to do a ‘double feature’ series of reviews, where I would pick out two films with similar themes or just in the same genre that I hadn’t seen before and write a compare and contrast review of them. Two black and white suspense films, two Asian extreme films, two Euro-horrors, two biographies, two documentaries. Given that we’re over halfway through the month and this is the first post in the series, you can guess how many films I’ve actually watched this month.
On the plus side I could actually do the documentary double feature twice as I’ve watched four feature length documentaries in the past 48 hours. However, as the latter two were screened as part of the Being Human festival, I’ll save them for a post about that festival in its own right.
So, on to the double feature. Yesterday, after a dispiriting and frustrating morning, I was surfing the iPlayer seeking something to cheer me up. I’d fallen a bit behind on my documentary watching lately and I thought watching one and starting to catch up would both cheer me up and motivate me in other areas of my life. To my delight the Storyville thread – for the uninitiated the Storyville strand on the BBC showcases documentary films from around the world – is currently running so there were in a fact quite a few documentaries to choose for, including a couple that I’d been wanting to see. Therefore I ended up watching The Lance Armstrong Story: Stop At Nothing and Blackfish: The Whale That Killed. Which, other than having American protagonists, could hardly have been more different films.
First up was Stop at Nothing, I’m not generally a sports documentary fan, but as with Senna I’m sucker for a story about an obsessive personality. It was interesting from that point of view, as there had been so much back and forth in the press about whether or not he was taking drugs before his final confession (spoiler: he was taking drugs). Also it was fascinating as a portrait of someone so utterly driven to succeed that it consumes them entirely, the way someone can lie so much and create a fake narrative that they utterly believe and will stick with in the face of all kinds of evidence and destroy their relationships and other people to preserve. Also of how people around such a person will come to believe the lie so much that they too will lie and cheat and manipulate and intimidate people to preserve it too. The sheer corruption revealed within the cycling teams and bodies, as well as within the American justice system (he got a FBI investigation shut down from above) is frankly horrifying. It’s also clear from the documentary that this isn’t the end of the story, that the corruption goes far deeper than has yet been revealed and until the full extent of that has been revealed and properly scoured, the sport of road cycling will never be free of its taint.
Second up was Blackfish a documentary that came to somewhat notorious fame this time last year, its UK release being heralded by vicious condemnation of the film by SeaWorld and disgusted condemnation of SeaWorld but a swathe of American and Canadian bands who had seen the film and were now cancelling all their gigs at SeaWorld branches.
It deals with the story of a particular killer whale, Tilikum, who killed two trainers twenty years apart. It looks at his treatment, and that of other killer whales in captivity, taking evidence from expert witnesses to essentially look at whether the animals are essentially dangerous to human beings or whether their captive conditions make them dangerous to humans. The SeaWorld perspective seems to be that they are dangerous animals that only the specially trained should interact with, and if trainers get hurt this is human error not the animal’s fault. Which is interesting in terms of correctly not blaming the animal for doing what the animal does but bizarre in terms of thinking about well, if they are so dangerous and need careful handling, what on earth are you doing teaching them to do tricks and letting the trainers ride them like horses and play with them like puppies? The experts do seem divided but only really on whether the danger these animals pose to their trainers is inherent and exacerbated by their captive conditions or caused by their captive conditions in the first place.
I think, regardless of where you fall in regard to the subject of keeping wild animals in captivity, it is the testimonies of the former trainers that have the greatest impact. These are people who loved their jobs and loved those animals, who cared for them as best they could, given the information with which they were provided. They are speaking out from a place of care, they spent a lot of their professional lives caring for these animals and remain emotionally invested in their wellbeing, and have come to believe that the wellbeing of those animals is in no way served by SeaWorld. They directly contradict the established narrative that Tilikum was just one rogue animal, instead raising the notion that the treatment and living conditions of these animals was a direct cause of this behaviour and likely to cause further cases in the future.
The place where the two films intersect is in that in both sets of events powerful corporate interests put profits and success above the safety of their staff. In both films an icon is built and marketed, and those invested in that icon’s continued success as a brand, will stop at nothing to protect that brand, even at the expense of the safety and lives of both their ‘icon’ and anyone who tries to expose the truth.