In the past ten years, the popularity of documentaries has really exploded, at least amongst my peers. As someone who has been a big doc fan a long time and taken several doc classes in school, it warms my heart to see this type of movie getting attention critically and financially. While my poor classic films still get neglected, this sector of movies is growing, thriving, and getting increasingly more creative and inventive.
Here’s where you might not like what I have to say though. You need to understand that a documentary is not the news. They are under no obligation to be subjective and, in fact, very few of these mainstream documentaries are. Just because something is non-fiction does not mean it is non-agenda. These movies are basically persuasive arguments, except instead of a theme paper, they are presented cinematically.
The very first documentary, Nanook of the North, was actually very much staged and far from real. But the point wasn’t to be real, the point was to try to expose American audiences to a culture and lifestyle they weren’t familiar with.
Which brings me to Blackfish. This is an exceptionally well-made documentary about the downsides of keeping killer whales in captivity, focusing mostly on a killer whale named Tillikum, who was captured when he was a baby in 1983 and grew increasingly hostile as he aged, playing a role in the death of three different people. If you’ve seen the documentary, you leave very much feeling as though keeping orcas in captivity is a horrifying thing to do and all should be set free immediately. As a kid who saw Free Willy numerous times over, my heart broke as I watched Blackfish, but the film student in me saw how patently one-sided this argument really was.
I remember when I was obsessed with Willy I read up on Keiko the whale and learned that, after being in captivity for so long, they couldn’t exactly set Keiko free because he wouldn’t have been able to survive on his own. He wouldn’t know how to feed himself, there was no pod to take him in. Keiko got a vastly improved life as a result of the movie, but the sad truth is Keiko died of pneumonia and never fully made it out to the wild again.
When you do some digging on Blackfish, you find out that Sea World wasn’t the only one criticizing this movie. One of the trainers who died has a family that appreciates the film, but refuses to accept any funds from the film to support the foundation in their late daughter’s name. Some interviewed for the film didn’t make the final cut and weren’t told the film would be so anti-Sea World. This isn’t the filmmakers being shady, this is how documentaries get made. Think about how you design an argument. You aggregate as much information and research as you can, you pick your strongest points, and you make your case with that.
So, no, I am not being critical of Blackfish, I am just trying to explain that you are getting an argument on a subject that fits in a box, and the stuff that doesn’t fit in that box gets discarded. That box sometimes is determined before the filming begins, that box changes shape, and in the editing process that box inevitably gets smaller because movies are only so long.
Blackfish’s box is about the dangers of keeping animals in, well, a box. I don’t think anyone would argue that when something is confined versus when they are free to roam, they are going to act differently. It is not unlike when people get filmed. In documentaries, the two approaches tend to get described as “fly on the wall” vs “fly in the soup.” In the former, the documentarians do their best to remain removed from the action, creating a sense of objectivity, like they are sneaking into a situation undetected. Think about when a camera is pointed at you though. You fundamentally act differently. Maybe you smile more, maybe you hide behind another person, maybe you say or don’t say things you normally would. That is why “fly in the soup” documentarians accept this is human (and animal nature), so they insert themselves right in the middle of the action, kind of like Werner Herzog did in Grizzly Man.
While I prefer the fly on the wall documentaries on the whole, the fly in the soup mentality is one it is hard to disagree with. People and animals act differently when you constrain them. That’s why there are terms like “stir crazy” and “cabin fever”. The second you take away something from someone, they become keenly aware that, though it may not seem important in their life, it is actually a big part of it they didn’t know how much they needed it.
Orange Is the New Black is a show all about captivity and what it does to people. In the opening season, the so-called lead of the show Piper is the fish out of water, learning to adapt to a life in prison after spending the rest of her life in upper middle class suburbia. Everything is foreign, from the shower slippers to the food to how to socialize, and the opening season takes us along with Piper learning to acclimate. It seems like she doesn’t change that much as a person, but by Season 3, she is the Tillikum of this women’s prison—a danger to her fellow inmates and, more importantly, a danger to herself.
Throughout each season of the show, we see that every woman on this show is not the person in prison that they were on the outside. These women aren’t in here because of their prison behavior. They did something else in an entirely different venue of their life that ended them up in the clink, and from there it was either adapt or perish.
For some, like Taystee, the outside world is almost scarier than prison. She gets out, but she is kind of like Keiko of Free Willy fame in that she is no longer equipped to survive in the real world. It is an issue many elderly inmates who are released and have no idea what to do because they have no life to return to deal with regularly in the real world. On OITNB, the women always talk about getting out as the end goal, but let’s be real, they won’t be going back to the life they had before most of the time, so it is just a pipe dream, a hope to get them through this stretch of captivity because a crappy life on the outside is something to daydream about when you’re trapped inside something else.
It is obvious how the whales in captivity and women in prison connect. Literal captivity is pretty easy to spot. But we all allow ourselves to get trapped in things we can’t get out of on our own. A job you hate, a bad relationship you need out of, an illness you can’t recover from—all of these are a version of being locked up.
Unrequited love, while romantically endearing, is a version of captivity too. For the guy singing to Delilah, believing she is the answer to fixing his problems. Every emo kid wallows in the pain of Something Corporate’s epic rock ballad Konstantine. More recently, the unrequited love song hall of fame was gifted Great Big World’s Say Something. This song differs a little from your standard unrequited love ballads where the singer belts out that they will love this person forever no matter what.
In Say Something, the singer finally gets fed up feeling trapped and is imploring the other person to give them something, anything to go on because they are feeling claustrophobic and they need out, even if that something said to them is no. They are willing to do anything on their part, be it swallow their pride, give up their vices, or admit fault that they just weren’t good enough for you to give them a shot. But at the same time, they are really begging you to set them free from this feeling of maybe it’ll happen so they can be set free to find someone else or lead their own path elsewhere.
There is almost certainly another side to the Say Something story. A person who just doesn’t have those feelings for the person, someone who feels suffocated by the affection of someone they just want as a friend or maybe, just maybe, they are too scared to say something either. Either way, it is like Blackfish. This guy has put together his best argument to give himself one last shot at the person he loves. It is biased, it is one-sided, and it is coming from someone who wants nothing more than to be set free with or without the person he loves.