It may seem strange to select a documentary on captured orca (‘killer’) whales for a column dedicated to artistic inspiration. However, ‘Blackfish’, a film dealing with orcas in captivity that have caused the deaths of several people, is full of interesting nuances and ambiguities.
The film resonated with me on a number of artistic levels. There is subject matter: the obvious conflict of capturing highly intelligent creatures to make them perform circus tricks. There is technique: what first appears as an investigation of human tragedy, becomes a vehicle for exploring human indifference towards nature. There is paradox and inversion of subject matter: no documented instance of these huge, powerful predators killing humans in the wild exist, yet they have killed several people while in captivity – it took apparent domestication to make a killer of the so-called ‘killer whale’. There is ambiguity of emotion/colour: when a whale drowns a person by pulling them under, experts can’t tell if this is an act of play or violence, or both – the two are too closely related. There is variation of form: the film, condemning the spectacle of whale shows, in itself almost becomes a voyeuristic spectacle by inviting viewers to witness violent attacks, which in turn reinforces the original point.
Finally, and most relevant to a musician, there is creativity. As creatures that live in matriarchal societies and spend their adult lives with their mothers, separating a mother orca from her young is particularly traumatic. The film describes how, in response to a calf being removed and flown to another park, the mother starts to call out, searching for a sign of life in vain. She finally makes sounds that none of the park staff have experienced before. Experts are brought in and eventually find out that she is producing a variation on her usual long-distance signals. Her heightened emotional state has caused her to seek out new approaches to the problem and articulate her needs in ways she hasn’t tried before. Now isn’t this relevant to artistic inspiration?