I’ve been a fan of documentary film for years. The very first disc I ordered from Netflix, back in the pre-streaming days, was King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. I thought Rescue Dawn had some ludicrous plot points until I saw Little Dieter Needs to Fly and realized the feature hewed uncomfortably close to the documentary. And Grizzly Man, while ultimately tragic, also provided more laughs than some films that purport to be comedies (I’m looking at you, Cop Out). I’d happily watch any of these docs again today because they are so enjoyable. Lately, though, I’ve found myself watching documentaries that have such a profound emotional effect I don’t care to ever watch them again.
I’ve never been to SeaWorld, but I have been to the dolphin show at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. I found it enjoyable, but nothing spectacular. After watching Blackfish, however, I’ll never attend another marine mammal show as long as I live. The film is the story of the killer whale Tilikum and his involvement in the deaths of three people. It makes a pretty strong case that we are driving him and other orcas to aggressive and violent behavior by removing them from the wild when they are still calves and altering the natural hierarchy they would otherwise experience. Slightly less persuasive, but horrifically disturbing if true, is the suggestion that killer whales have a stronger sense of community than even humans do. If that is in fact the case, then we are torturing these animals by removing them from their families and keeping them in enclosures that couldn’t be more different from their natural habitat. Most frustrating is the holier-than-thou attitude exhibited by several ex-trainers who, rather than trying to bring attention to the situation stayed in SeaWorld’s employ long after they new Tilikum’s behavior was becoming more erratic. They try to paint themselves as victims of SeaWorld’s greed, when in reality, they were a bunch of little Eichmanns, more than willing to play their parts and collect a paycheck as long as they weren’t the ones being attacked.
While Blackfish deals with a corporation and its employees who are torturing sentient creatures in pursuit of profits, Dear Zachary is a story of a single evil person, Shirley Jane Turner, and how she destroys an entire family with more than a little help from the Canadian legal system. Though she was never convicted, it would be uncontroversial to say that she likely murdered Dr Andrew Bagby, the father of her unborn child. She then fled to Canada to avoid prosecution. Bagby’s parents followed her north of the border to try to get some sort of shared custody of their grandson with filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, a childhood friend of Andrew’s, in tow. The film starts as a way to introduce Bagby’s son to the dad he never had a chance to know, but it ends up being much more than that as the courts in Newfoundland repeatedly act in ways that are both inexplicable and infuriating. There are a few directorial choices here that get annoying after a while, but the blind rage I felt by the time it was over was well worth it.
In my life, I’ve been known to be a little emotionally detached. It’s not that I don’t have feelings, it’s just that I tend to keep the bad ones buried way down inside where they can’t hurt anyone, just like Marge Simpson recommended. I’d have made a great Stoic back in the day. I do have one outlet, though, where I can let out my emotions in an environment that is comparatively safe, and that is through films. I always enjoyed movies that made me cry because they let me access a part of myself that I normally kept pretty well hidden. These two films have shown me that there’s another emotion I can access with their help: anger. Now I just need to find more documentaries that’ll do so. I’m thinking The Fog of War…