Five killer whales performing at “Marineland” in Antibes, southern France in 2008. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty
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What hubris makes us think we can imprison a 22ft killing machine?

Be careful if you watch Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that tells the story of orcas in captivity, framed around the experiences of a 33-year-old male called Tilikum. By the end, you’ll want to stop people in the street to warn them not to visit marine amusement parks.

Idly browsing through Netflix is a dangerous business. For a start, it encourages you to wallow in old sitcoms and cult dramas you’ve watched a dozen times before instead of learning what this newfangled “Scandinavian noir” business is. But sometimes, serendipity leads you to something remarkable – which is how I ended up this weekend turning into an orca liberationist.

I don’t know how to phrase this in a way that won’t get me burned in effigy but – deep breath – here goes. I’m suspicious about animal rights as a political cause because the kind of people who care passionately about them often don’t seem to have too much time for human beings. (A political strategist once told me that he was tasked with converting website visitors who came through single-issue campaigns into full party members; he found the animal lovers the hardest to convince.)

But enough of my prejudice. Even if you’re reading this over a dinner of battery chicken or about to head out on a grouse shoot, you should watch Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that tells the story of orcas in captivity, framed around the experiences of a 33-year-old male called Tilikum. By the end, you’ll want to stop people in the street to warn them not to visit marine amusement parks. (SeaWorld declined to be interviewed for Blackfish; it later published a statement on its website taking issue with several of the film’s claims and called it “propaganda, not a documentary”.)

Tilikum measures 22 and a half feet and weighs roughly 5,400 kilograms. His distinctive dorsal fin lolls uselessly to the side: this happens to most males in captivity. He is Icelandic, which turns out to matter because orcas have highly developed brains and sophisticated ways of communicating: witness the YouTube video in which three of them collaborate like synchronised swimmers to create a wave that dislodges a seal from an ice floe. Yet, for most of his life – he was captured at the age of two – Tilikum has been kept with unrelated orcas from different areas. (It’s like a horrible killer-whale version of Big Brother, only lasting three decades.) In his first home, Sealand in British Columbia, he was trained with other whales using punishment: if he messed up a trick, they’d all have their food withheld. This annoyed the others, so they would rake him with their teeth, causing him to bleed.

Tilikum’s time at Sealand ended in 1992 after he and the other two whales killed Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old competitive swimmer who worked there as a part-time trainer. She slipped into the pool and the whales repeatedly dragged her under, letting her resurface three times to call for help. After her death, Sealand closed and Tilikum moved to SeaWorld in Florida, where in 1999 he was found one morning with a dead, naked man draped over his back. Daniel Dukes had decided to sneak into the pool at night for a magical experience with the orcas. Among many injuries, his scrotum had been torn open.

By this point, my boyfriend had been lured away from whatever task he had begun elsewhere in the flat. “Look at its eyes!” he hissed, pointing out that he is the same age as Tilikum and he would not have appreciated spending most of his life so far in a concrete pool. We agreed that Tilikum had the cold, calculating eyes of a killer – but then, the clue is in the name of his species. Killer whales don’t have any moral prohibition on murder: in the wild, they have to kill to eat. What dawns on you as you watch Blackfish is how arrogant we are to think that we can “tame” such a creature; no matter how long we make them jump for balloons, let us ride on their backs, beach themselves for the applause of a holiday crowd, they are still muscle-bound killing machines with complicated inner lives.

Once you understand that, it’s hard not to watch through your fingers every time a puny human gets in the water with them. In one agonising incident shown in the film, a SeaWorld orca drags a senior trainer repeatedly to the bottom of the pool by the foot, toying with him as it might do with a seal. Only quick thinking by co-workers prevented that from becoming another tragedy.

Dawn Brancheau wasn’t so lucky. The 40-year-old trainer was killed by Tilikum in February 2010 after being pulled into the water. He ripped off her arm at the elbow, scalped her and severed her spine; it took hours to retrieve her body.

Tilikum is still alive and still living at SeaWorld but who – knowing any of this – would want to see him perform? There is no doubt that the park’s trainers love and care for the animals in their charge, but the whole set-up is deeply nauseating. It would feel like gawking at some kind of orca Guantanamo Bay.

Animals make appealing, uncomplicated victims. The irony here is that maybe SeaWorld is right to claim that keeping orcas in captivity, where people can be charmed by them, is the only way to make us care about the dangers they face in the wild. If so, it’s just another piece of evidence of our human selfishness – saving the planet sounds like too much hassle, so let’s make a priority of the entertaining, photogenic animals. Pandas, yes; the other 2,000-odd species that WWF estimates go extinct every year? Nah.

Watching Blackfish has also made me question my holiday habit of heading for a city’s zoo: although the best are world-class research centres, I’ve seen too many where intelligent animals are eking out their days in a glorified car park. Why do I need to reassure myself regularly that giraffes really exist – that they’re not some global conspiracy perpetuated by David Attenborough?

So, no, I wouldn’t go to SeaWorld now - but more than eight million people a year do. Would they still want to if they knew what they were watching? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game