The Documentary as Propaganda
Earlier tonight, I watched a 2009 film named The Cove, a documentary centered around revealing a specific dolphin slaughtering operation in Taiji, Japan. I found it to be quite an interesting film, though not necessarily in the way the filmmakers intended. Instead, I found myself ruminating about the nature of documentary films, and how we digest them.
First, the basics: The Cove details a very specific story. The main character in this tale is Richard O’Barry, the man who trained the five female dolphins that we Americans came to know and love as Flipper. O’Barry spent ten years of his life making an entire nation of television viewers fall in love with dolphins, but then changed his mind about his work when one of the Flipper dolphins died in his arms. He’s spent the rest of his life working against the dolphin captivity industry.
Enter the nation of Japan. The film never makes it clear exactly why O’Barry wound up in Taiji in the first place, but we learn that O’Barry has become determined to reveal dolphin capture and slaughter operations happening in a highly-guarded cove. The film then details the painstaking espionage operations undertaken by O’Barry and a crack team of filmmaking and diving professionals, in order to gather the disturbing footage seen in the final minutes of the movie.
The Cove is a striking, engrossing, slick piece of film-making that has deservedly won accolades. It won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for that year, and IMDB currently ranks the film as seventh best documentary ever made.
So it’s a successful movie. But is it a successful documentary?
Here’s the thing: all documentary films are propaganda. Every single one of ’em. The process of turning raw footage into a movie means that someone has to make personal choices about what information should be shown to an audience and when. In order to build a compelling story that someone will want to watch, a filmmaker must choose a viewpoint. A slant. An angle. The point of every movie is to engage an audience, so this is a necessity. Sure, there are some documentaries that seek to show multiple sides to a story, but someone chose to show multiple viewpoints, and which viewpoints to show. There are avant garde documentaries that seek to remove as much of a filmmaker’s perspective as possible, but they are mostly practices in art that aren’t easily accessible to the average moviegoing audience. (I have yet to meet anyone who has sat through Andy Warhol’s Empire, which consists only of eight unrelenting hours of continuous slow-motion footage of the Empire State Building. Then again, part of the point of making the film was sheer unwatchability.) Regardless, each documentary seeks to sell its viewpoint to the audience. Even in something as abstract as Empire, the choice has been made to give the audience only a view of the Empire State Building. Why not the Chrysler Building?
I don’t necessarily think the word “propaganda” is a dirty word here, but it’s often bandied about as such by movie audiences. People go to the movies to have their emotions manipulated. They may want escapism, or insight, or laughter, but they want to be moved. The propaganda of a documentary is all about moving an audience in such a way. However, if it “feels” like propaganda, a lot of folks seem to balk. When it comes to documentaries, it’s bad to see the strings on the marionette. We are often happy to be gently guided to a conclusion, but nobody likes being shoved.
We forget that documentary films are not science. Documentary films are art. Raw documentary footage can be science. Scientific facts can certainly help build the story of a documentary film. But documentary films have a viewpoint, and are therefore not completely objective.
So The Cove is absolutely a piece of propaganda. Big deal. Yet it seems to feel the need to be an extremely blatant piece of propaganda, which I think is where the film stumbles.
The entire film is built around the damning footage of dolphin slaughter gathered by the film crew. The argument is that the slaughter of dolphins is bad.
Okay, that was flip. Let me elaborate: this point is not a hard one to sell. Back in my biology days, we’d call dolphins “charismatic macrofauna.” They’re cute and clever and fun and graceful and easy to anthropomorphize. They photograph well. It might be a little harder to sell this viewpoint to a fishing village in Japan, but this documentary is very clearly not made for a Japanese audience. This documentary was made by Americans, and they seem to be pretty blind to the fact that they’ve built a narrative that basically pits white people against the Japanese.
I don’t think the filmmakers meant to be racist. The team pulled together by O’Barry are clearly folks he already personally knew from the diving and entertainment industries. Yet I’m sure he could have found similar talent inside Japan. (I hear they have a robust film industry.) O’Barry probably would have had an easier time dealing with the townspeople of Taiji, just by having a native or two on his team.
The footage they gathered is harrowing, certainly. It’s the cinematic equivalent of being hit in the head with a club. But that footage is only shown in the last few minutes of The Cove. The rest of the film is either the argument against cruelty to dolphins, or the narrative of how they got the footage they needed.
Frankly, I found the narrative far more interesting than the “save the dolphins” message… and I agree with saving the dolphins. O’Barry’s arguments against dolphin slaughter mostly focus on a) anthropomorphizing these animals, or b)
lead mercury content of dolphin meat. The lead mercury content point is valid, but by the time it showed up in the film, I was already turned off by the purely emotional arguments made in the first half hour. If you’re trying to shut down an animal slaughtering operation in any country, I can almost guarantee you that the folks doing the slaughtering aren’t going to care much about the emotional capacity of the animal that brings in the paycheck that feeds their family. You need to bring facts to the table, too. Instead, this movie was working way too hard to preach to the choir.
Yet I find it hard to completely condemn this film as a documentary, because the narrative was absolutely riveting. Once O’Barry and his cohort, National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, decide to get footage of this closely guarded dolphin slaughtering operation, the film turns into something like a jewel heist flick. They pull in all these crazy divers and film industry folk to assemble gadgets and install them under the cover of darkness. There are hidden cameras and microphones and heat vision and night vision and people who can hold their breath for a really long time… It’s absolutely delicious! If you ever need further proof (aside from Mythbusters) of why you should never piss off tech people from the entertainment industry, this is it.
But I got to the end and was left with a bad taste in my mouth. The most successful part of this film was the depiction of how these clever people got the footage. As a narrative, it was perfectly fine. As a technical production, it was highly polished. But did this passionate film accomplish what it truly wanted in its heart: did it save the dolphins of Taiji? Did it manage to change minds enough to enact real change? So far, the answer seems to be no. The Taiji fishing practices have continued, and the film has not found an audience in Japan. Then again, social change is often slow.
The Cove is currently playing on Netflix Streaming, if you wish to make your own opinions. If you do watch it, I suggest following it with an amazing documentary named Man on Wire, which has more real-life espionage and 100% less dolphin slaughter.
Addendum: Twitter user MrHolise pointed me to The Cove PSA on YouTube, which I thought was particularly fascinating after I wrote this article.