And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.
– Roger Ebert, Life Itself
During this lecture, Lord Puttnam covered a wide range of subjects, which is difficult to adequately surmise; he talked about subjects from the positioning of audiences in a transmedial, fractured, solitary small-screen world and the decline of a communal sense of wonder and engagement at the cinema, to the power of film to act as a great aggregator of social anxieties and neuroses. He discussed how cinema interrogates and shows culture’s hopes and fears, how cinema acts as a potentially transformative mechanism, how it can distill generational concerns or radically transform the way we see issues.
Film is a medium where humans find a common and universal purpose and recognition, a place where we realize that what bonds us is more powerful than our differences. Cinema is a place of seeing the self (of feeling validity, of recognizing our faces, our struggles, our triumphs, our failures) and learning of/ learning to respect and empathize with each other – studies have shown that films can help us empathize with those that are different from us. The cinema is a place of ideas and images that are absorbed and replicated, of ideology and identity, of following a story that we already know, and discovering new stories that we never knew before. It is both a reflection of culture and influences culture itself, an artform – measured, resonant, important in a very material way – and entertainment – bodily, bombastic, based in ticket stubs and box office graphs and end of year lists.
Does cinema matter, and affect the world? There are many examples of how cinema (and television) has had a decisive impact– from fashion trends (Elizabeth Taylor’s New Look dress in A Place in The Sun spawning mass produced imitations (Cruzzi)), to spreading particular hateful ideologies, to helping free people on death row. The cinema is a thing of feeling, being situated and positioned (in the dark, a spectatorial subject passively receiving hegemonic discourses and specific framing, if you subscribe to notions about the cinema and its ideological operations), of imagination and pointing to a flat screen and saying: that’s me, or you, or I don’t recognize that/them/myself. Recent studies have shown that movies can help audiences build empathy; by following along certain narratives and investing in characters, we begin to empathize with others (Zumski Finke).
Lord Puttnam spoke about how film is something that can be used to effect social change, and to start dialogues (for instance, Lord Puttnam is in the pre-production stages of a film dealing with the plight of the Arctic 30, a film he hopes will draw attention to environmental concerns and climate change).
The film I want to discuss is the 2013 documentary Blackfish, and look at the so-called ‘Blackfish effect’ that followed its release. The film tells the story of Tikilum, an orca bred in captivity and forced to perform in daily shows at SeaWorld; these questionable conditions and practices led to the death of several trainers and a visitor. The film illustrates the unethical and grossly inhumane practices at SeaWorld, and appeals to audience empathy in showing us the results of captivity/forced performance: depression, anger, grievous harm against both animal and human, alienation from nature, and highlights the uneasiness of wild animals being rendered as objects of spectacle and entertainment.
In Blackfish, Tikilum becomes both anthropomorphised, a character and protagonist of sorts, a symbol and a complex being, capable of experiencing pain and degradation, a figure to invest in, and at the same time is presented as unpredictable, wild and animal – a danger to all the trainers at the marine park. Blackfish deals with fundamental questions of compromise and empathy – how much pain and subjugation are we willing to ignore in order to enjoy a show? Can we empathize with any subject – an animal, brute and wild and fundamentally damaged? How do we negotiate our desire to see the wild and confront it closely, to come face-to-face with it, but have it be contained in some way? Questions of our hunger to see and in some way commune with animals are interrogated in the film.
The film’s release inspired a flurry of social media debates, condemnation from celebrities and high-profile figures, and a huge backlash against SeaWorld – the business’ opponents were much more vocal on Twitter and other social media platforms (Aula and Heinonen). A contentious battle in the news cycle between the makers of Blackfish and SeaWorld followed: there were accusations of biased filmmaking, counter-arguments provided by SeaWorld including a new section on its website titled ‘The Truth About Blackfish‘ (Aula and Heinonen), and constant debate on matters of appropriate zoological care and the ethical compromises corporations make in order to make money. The film, according to Caty Borum Chattoo, was successful in its endeavours to force policy change at SeaWorld through carefully chosen distribution channels and by working in tandem with pre-existing activist efforts to halt SeaWorld’s orca breeding programme and shows (‘The Anatomy of the Blackfish Effect’).
Blackfish was given not just a theatrical release, but also shown on CNN, where it beat cable news competitors with more than 400,000 of the 25-54 demo tuning in (Renninger); this tactic allowed Blackfish to reach a much larger audience, and the film was then quickly made available on Netflix later in the year (Borum Chattoo). This particular distribution strategy allowed the film and its message to gain momentum and stimulate a conversation in the public sphere; theatrical releases of documentaries are usually not well attended, and through Netflix, a streaming site where spectatorship is thought to be solitary, viewers across the world came together to collectively condemn SeaWorld’s practices over social media, over a sustained period of time (Borum Chattoo). The film’s social impact can be seen to have snowballed over a period of three years (Borum Chattoo). Examples of the film’s impact at a legislative level include the attempts by California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom and New York Senator Greg Ball to pass laws banning killer whale captivity (Aula and Heinonen), and SeaWorld’s AAA rating was downgraded, in addition to lost sponsorships (Aula and Heinonen).
Blackfish is an example of how film can work to effect real, tangible institutional change in the world, and shine a spotlight on unethical and immoral businesses; it is a film that makes the audience examine their own behavior and consumer choices and empathize with a central character through careful narrative choices. It is a film that employed a distribution strategy that, even in an increasingly solitary and fractured media age, allowed the film to reach the widest possible audience and foster a collective sense of outrage and empathy. The film, with its emotive central concerns, and its employment of the assumption of authenticity inherent to documentary, as well as the immediacy of the documentary, is a great example of both how cultural and political discourses can be shaped through film, and how crafting a compelling narrative can effect change. SeaWorld attempted to gain some ground back in the discourse surrounding the film concerning the ethical questions of animal performances, breeding programmes and life-long captivity, but ultimately were forced to accede to public pressure and adjust their policies. In March 2016, SeaWorld announced they would be halting all breeding programmes at the park, and since then profits (up to 84%), attendance and stock prices continue to fall (Neate).
Aula, Pekka, and Heinonen Jouni. The Reputable Firm: How Digitalisation of Communication Is Revolutionizing Reputation Management. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016.
Borum Chattoo, Caty. ‘Anatomy of “The Blackfish Effect”’. The Huffington Post. 25 March 2016. Web. 20th July 2016.
Cruzzi, Stella. Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the movies. Oxon: Routledge. 1997.
Neate, Rupert. ‘SeaWorld sees profits plunge 84% as customers desert controversial park’. The Guardian. 6 August 2015. Web. 15th July 2016.
Renninger, Bryce J. A Whale of A Tweet: Six Takeaways from the Twitter Success of CNN’s Broadcast of ‘Blackfish’. Indiewire.com. 2013. Web.12th July 2016.
Zumski Finke, Christopher. ‘Watching movies may help you build empathy’. YES! Magazine. October 21, 2015. Web. 12th July 2016.