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.

Well… duh.

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.


Melissa Kaercher is a multimedia artist, podcaster, skeptic, science nerd, and meatspace network node. She is also Queen of the Lizard People.

Related Articles


  1. I almost always find watching documentaries a frustrating experience, for just that reason. If the documentary is about something you don’t already know everything about, then you often don’t have the basis to judge the information critically, and can’t really tell if and when the truth is getting short shrift.

    (It’s a different experience when I’m watching a documentary about something I already understand. But then I’m not really watching to learn something new; I’m just watching in order to form an opinion about the documentary. Which can be fun, of course, but it’s not the same kind of fun as being educated.)

    The thing is, I don’t really understand why this has to be the case. In principle, watching a documentary shouldn’t be any more (or less) exasperating than reading a book on a subject. But something about the medium — whether due to an intrinsic factor (maybe the limited time available) or historical accident — seems to make documentaries much less worthy of my trust.

  2. I think you hit it on the nose. Documentary films are usually unable to pack a lot of hard data onto a screen. However, they can pack huge amounts of subtler data into a short amount of time. You could write a book about the same slaughtering operation and pack it full of statistics that would never fit into a 92 minute documentary like The Cove. However, that book would never be able to give you the experience of actually seeing the ocean turn red. You could describe something like that in words, but as they say, a single image is worth 1,000 words.

  3. Everything that is created for consumption is rhetorical. I mean that in the classical sense of the word. Essentially, if something is created (painting, novel, film, documentary film, comic book, etc) there is always a desire to persuade. It is easier to spot with things like TV commercials and more difficult to spot as we drift toward artistic endeavors.

    As we watch documentaries, I tend to argue that we are being presented with rhetoric (conventional signs with the purpose of getting someone to think something or to want to do something) and not propaganda. The reason propaganda IS such a dirty word lies in the aim behind creation of such media. There is an implied deceit that comes with propaganda. We also see the creator of propaganda as one who intends to benefit from the production of said materials. I don’t think that documentaries are created with that intent. It’s arguable, but I believe documentarians are not attempting to deceive us in order to change society, but rather present information as they see it.

    I would be stupid to argue that all information within a documentary is accurate and should be taken as truth; or that there is NEVER deceit in documentary creation, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that a documentary is less like propaganda and more like a rhetorical argument.

  4. I agree with everything you said however I did not feel drawn to save the dolphins. This film only seems to work if you set dolphins apart and above all other animals. I think the amount of shock and horror we are expected to feel is disproportionate when compared with animals that we are accustom to eating. For example pigs. Pigs are often listed in the top 10 or so smartest animals. There is no doubt they feel pain and can be scared, yet where is our rage when the Mc Rib comes back?

    What I am pointing to is a western bias where we become appalled at someone killing a smart charismatic animal that we do not have listed in our consciousness as food. But do it ourselves daily when we can call it pork.

    As a side note I’m not a vegetarian. I’m just someone who understands morally I can’t justify eating meat but does so anyways because it’s just too damn tasty…so I guess I’m a psychopath.

  5. “I would be stupid to argue that all information within a documentary is accurate and should be taken as truth;”

    Unless it is a David Attenborough nature documentary…. Then it is the truth! All hail the majestic David Attenborough!

  6. @hellendrung: Hi! Excellent point, though I think we’re just getting into semantics here. The definition of propaganda (in the classical, not-necessarily-misleading-information sense), I think, is pretty similar to the definition of rhetoric (in the classical sense). It’s just that propaganda is a far more loaded word these days.

  7. @dpeabody: I have various reasons for wanting to save dolphins from slaughter, though they’re not necessarily the reasons presented in this documentary. I just didn’t get into it, because I the point is tangential to what I wanted to talk about in the post. I’d probably feel different about dolphin meat if dolphins were specifically being raised for food. Americans generally don’t deplete wild populations of pigs, cows, or chickens for their food; these animals are bred and raised for the purposes of becoming food.

    But beyond that, it’s just generally a bad idea to eat top level predators. Toxins flow up the food chain quite well.

    Also: all hail David Attenborough!

  8. Yeh, sorry I knew my comment was slightly off topic. My main problem with many environmental documentaries is that they are too one sided and I also find them twisting the facts to make whatever they are against seem worse, When in reality they often do not need too.

    I feel there is a propaganda line that can be crossed when you do not portray the other side as human having all the conflicts of interest and cultural biases that are common amongst humans.

    “I’d probably feel different about dolphin meat if dolphins were specifically being raised for food”.
    I am not sure I feel the Bill Cosby approach to animal welfare is the correct one “I brought you into this world & I can take you out.”

  9. @dpeabody: Hey, no worries about tangents here. That’s what comment threads are for, right?

    I think we’re pretty much in agreement about the tone that is often taken in animal rights PSAs/documentaries/etc. I don’t mind that they’re making an emotional appeal to save these creatures; it’s just that they’re being short-sighted in thinking that’s the *only* argument they need to make.

    As for Bill Cosby Food Ethics, I’m just thinking that it’s a bad idea to disrupt a natural ecosystem by removing large numbers of free-roaming predators, especially if it results only in feeding mercury-laden meat to people. Sure, you could probably argue that cow meat from an American corporate megafarm is also pretty toxic, and also has a huge impact on the environment, but that’s a different can of worms.

    Also, Bill Cosby Food Ethics will be the name of my Toad the Wet Sprocket cover band.

  10. I used to like to refer to them as opionaries, but you’re right, there already is a name for that: propaganda. I would like to see a genre split on the documentary scene between people at least trying to be objective and the counterpart. Seems like the only definition for documentary these days is ‘no actors were hired’.

  11. Well, technically, “no actors were hired” is pretty close to the actual definition of a documentary. The term “documentary” is immensely broad, and it covers everything from reality TV to a family’s vacation video to Werner Herzog’s 3D opus about cave paintings. The Wikipedia article on “documentary film” has a pretty good discussion about the definition of a documentary.

Leave a Reply

Check Also
Back to top button