Two Documentaries Examine Violence, Human And Animal Two new documentaries are making headlines. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish centers on the whale that killed a trainer before an Orlando SeaWorld audience in 2010. The Act of Killing by human rights researcher Josh Oppenheimer, looks at the mass executions of communists in Indonesia in the 1960s.
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Two Documentaries Examine Violence, Human And Animal

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Two Documentaries Examine Violence, Human And Animal


Arts & Life

Two Documentaries Examine Violence, Human And Animal

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Film critic David Edelstein has a review of two new attention-getting documentaries. The first, by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is called "Blackfish" and centers on the whale that killed a trainer in front of an audience at SeaWorld in Orlando in 2010. Sea World has mounted an aggressive campaign in response, accusing the film of being inaccurate, misleading, and shamefully dishonest.

The second film, "The Act of Killing," by Texas-born human rights researcher Josh Oppenheimer looks back on the mass killings of communists in Indonesia in the 1960s.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Two documentaries, "Blackfish" and "The Act of Killing," are making waves around the world. The first riles you up; the second blows your mind. "Blackfish" is the Inuit's name for the orca, the killer whale, a creature they say is worthy of veneration but you don't want to mess with - the chief example in Gabriela Cowperthwaite's "Blackfish" being Tilikum, responsible for two, possibly three, human deaths.

The movie is Tilikum's story - along with the story of other whales kept in captivity in theme parks like SeaWorld. Tilikum was snatched from his mother early, and a mother whale that loses a child makes sounds that transcend species. You hear mothers' cries in "Blackfish," which opens with a description by one participant and one researcher of a 1970 hunt for young whales.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It was a really exciting thing to do and so everybody wanted to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What were they telling you, you were going to do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Capture orcas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They had aircraft. They had spotters. They had speedboats. They had bombs they were throwing in the water.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They were lighting their bombs with acetylene torches in their boats and throwing those as fast as they could to herd the whales into coves. But the orcas had been caught before, and they knew what was going on and they knew their young ones would be taken from them. So the adults without young went east into a cul-de-sac and the boats followed them, thinking they were all going that way, while the mothers with babies went north.

But the capture teams had aircraft and they have to come up for air eventually. And when they did, the capture teams alerted the boats and said, oh, no, they're going north, the ones with babies. So the boats, the speedboats, caught them there and herded them in. And then they had fishing boats with same nets that they would stretch across so none could leave. And then they could just pick out the young ones.

EDELSTEIN: The sequence is almost too upsetting to watch, and "Blackfish" gets yet more painful. Whales have been shown to be complex, emotional beings, and former Orlando SeaWorld trainers recall the anguish of mother-child separations and the obvious psychological impact of captivity. The ex-trainers' tearful - sometimes shame-filled - recollections alternate with footage of their younger selves smiling and declaiming for SeaWorld audiences, doing tricks with whales they came to love.

They even loved Tilikum, whose mutilation of the esteemed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 sent SeaWorld into PR overdrive, the company claiming she was grabbed by a ponytail she shouldn't have left dangling. Witnesses in "Blackfish" make a more compelling case that she was attacked. Her death is, thankfully, not shown, although the movie is not for the squeamish.

SeaWorld officials, who declined to be interviewed for the film, are calling it inaccurate and misleading. Meanwhile, Tilikum remains at SeaWorld - though is, in the words of one researcher, psychotic. He's valuable breeding material, though; his semen is worth millions.

Josh Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" centers on the massacre in Indonesia in the mid-'60s of communists and suspected communists. Estimates of the dead vary - it could have been a million. Most were executed by paramilitaries in league with then-general, future president, Suharto. And the killers are still there, unpunished, even honored.

And they love movies, especially gangster movies. So when Oppenheimer approached them to make a film - to help write and direct their life stories, even put on makeup and costumes and reenact scenes, they agreed with enthusiasm. They even participated in flabbergasting songs and dances, big production numbers. With the film's release, some subjects have backpedaled, saying they misunderstood the project. What we see, though, leaves little room for misunderstanding.

The principal subject is Anwar Congo, leader of an elite death unit. He can look grandfatherly in one shot, hard in the next. He loves Hollywood gangsters. He says the word gangster means free man. Anwar boasts of designing ways to kill people with thin wires to keep blood from spurting. But he's also having nightmares about his victims.

On the other hand, a former colleague of his named Adi Zulkadry has no patience for guilt. He's a relativist. War crimes, he says, are defined by the winners. He refuses to be branded a war criminal. Both men demonstrate interrogation, torture and killing; in one case with a man playing someone resembling his own murdered stepfather. A reenactment of a massacre and the burning of a village features women and children who can't stop sobbing long after the director has yelled cut.

Most of what we see is bizarre to the point of trippy-ness. But "The Act of Killing" documents a higher reality. By allowing murderers to write, direct and perform, Oppenheimer not only puts the horror in the present tense, he also shows you how these men viewed their actions, the myths they told themselves and one another. It's one of the most lucid portraits of evil I've ever seen.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

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