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Logos, Ethos, and Pathos in Blackfish by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

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On February 24, 2010, veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was tragically killed by the orca she was doing a show with inside the infamous Shamu Stadium in SeaWorld Orlando. The film, Blackfish, is an emotion-stirring dive into the mistreatment of Orcas at SeaWorld and the subsequent death of one of the human performers by an orca known as Tilikum. As you might expect, the film is very moving and fairly somewhat graphic as it details with emotional, visual rhetoric why killer whales at various SeaWorld have attacked their trainers and why these whales shouldn’t be in captivity. The documentary makes the claim that orcas should be freed from their enclosures due to the danger they pose towards humans and themselves. Although the creators multiple uses of the rhetorical tools were extremely effective and moving, they also fall somewhat short by manufacturing an overly emotional message where it can be difficult to clearly see the truth.

Blackfish is a documentary attempting to spread public awareness regarding the orca that are being kept in aquatic amusement parks, in particular SeaWorld, and the less positive aspects of their captivity. The documentary revolves around the case of one orca (also known as a killer whale) in particular by the name of Tilikum. As the documentary begins a group of hired fishermen hunt a family of killer whales off the coast of Iceland. The group is trying to capture the whales so that they can be integrated into parks around the world. They are successful in catching Tilikum, a large male orca twice as large as any creature they had at the park. As the documentary unfolds, the story takes an even darker turn when the film implies Tilikum is beginning to behave strangely. His behavior suggests much frustration and aggression at the amusement park, perhaps due to the fact that he is being kept in a small, dark, underwater tank when not on display. Tragically, Tilikum then kills his trainer by dragging her to the bottom of the tank, causing her to drown. The film ultimately asks whether or not these large businesses such as SeaWorld should be allowed to continue the abuse toward the animals as well as whether or not we as a society should be monetarily supporting them by visiting these parks and seeing these attractions.(Blackfish)

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Pathos is presented, quite heavy handedly, throughout Blackfish in the form of very emotional footage. It helps the audience get to know the orcas through trainer interviews and footage of the creatures themselves. Clips of the mother crying are shown, followed by an expert saying these cries have never been heard before. Listening to the intimate, tragic stories of former employees prods at the hearts of the audience and effectively lets them connect emotionally with what the Orcas and their trainers have gone through. The film then shows footage of subsequent mistreatment and the death of one of the trainers due to the orca named Tilikum, bringing the message home. Even though the whales are the ones killing, the whales are not portrayed negatively in this situation. They’re seen more as helpless, imprisoned sea creatures that SeaWorld uses for financial benefit. It is repeated that the Orcas must be separated from their destruction. Another way the creator evokes emotion is by trying to make you think of the Orcas as a family unit much like humans. He says on camera ‘This is the worst thing ive ever done, just like kidnapping a little kid away from his mother.'(Blackfish). This is said early on to imbed this message into the audiences’ mind for the rest of the film, making them more sympathetic to the Orcas cause. It forces the viewer to think about what would happen if something similar happened to their baby.

The documentary creates a powerful ethos in the work by having a very credible foundation of research. The interviews are focused around former SeaWorld trainers, who experienced much of the tragedy and mistreatment firsthand, as well as safety organization OSHA. Two witnesses to Dawn Brancheau’s death reported on video that it was evident that Tilikum was the one that killed the girl. Interviewing subjects that experienced these events helped strengthen Blackfish’s credibility. Another way ethos is established is through the thorough history and background that is given. This adds important context to these current events helps the audience to better understand the current situation and how it has arisen. Rather than blindly attacking SeaWorld, the documentarian goes back in history and uses factual information, news reports, and footage to show that the keeping whales in captivity has lead to fatalities well before SeaWorld ever opened its parks.(Blackfish) Also, by using news reports that have aired from reputable sources a sense of trustworthiness is gained. These things all work together to create an intrinsic ethos within the documentary.

Logos is shown several times throughout Blackfish as the film questions a lot of the facts that SeaWorld provides. For example SeaWorld claimed that “An orca only lives for about 25 to 35 years” and had longer lifespans than if they were to live in the wild due to the better care they received in captivity.(Blackfish) This is followed by a man from the Orca Network explaining that this information is false. “The females can live to about a hundred maybe more”. This helps to validate the documentaries message that the whales are being mistreated in captivity. The film uses an appeal to logos in its claim that Orcas have humanlike emotions, and that they can create bonds a lot like humans can. The film supports their claim with reasons that Orcas may feel sadness when they are separated from their families, and that Orcas can develop relationship bonds just like humans can. One of the most impactful people interviewed was a man named John Crowe. He was one of the men who took part in the capture of the Orcas. He began with how he caught them, focusing on the mothers and babies. He admits “I lost it. I started crying. I knew I could do this anymore”. This is important for the audience to see because if the whale napper doesn’t approve of this, how can they? The film goes even further and presents various scans of an Orcas brain taken with an MRI machine. This appeals to the audience reason, as it credibly shows that Orcas are experiencing a lot of brain activity and may be intelligent creatures.(Blackfish)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite creates a documentary with an incredibly compelling message due to a very impressive use of rhetorical appeals. The documentary manages to sweep you away in a cascade of emotion, history, and its call for justice. These are only a few of the countless examples of logos, ethos, and pathos to reflect upon within this documentary. Blackfish is targeting the general public and is meant to get people talking. The purpose of the film was to spread the world about the harmful effects that places such as SeaWorld bring about on not only the whales, but also the people involved. Clearly we are being manipulated but I think a little critical thinking can help you to determine how much of it is truth and how much is simply cinematic storytelling.


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