Guilt in The Cove

In his 2009 documentary The Cove, Louie Psihoyos seeks to unveil the town of Taiji’s covert dolphin slaughter. Throughout the documentary, Psihoyos explores moral, financial, and nutritional consequences of dolphin liquidation in an attempt to prevent its continued occurrence. His treatment of social actors in his documentary is especially important as it allows insight into the film’s underlying purpose and agenda. Psihoyos uses these social actors to explore several facets of thematically recurrent guilt in the film. Interestingly, guilt, while one of the primary motivating factors behind The Cove’s inception, is also employed by Psihoyos as a tool to influence the audience’s opinions.

Ric O’Barry scans the ocean for dolphins to be captured for use in the popular 1964 TV series Flipper.

Ric O’Barry scans the ocean for dolphins to be captured for use in the popular 1964 TV series Flipper.

The guilt that activist Ric O’Barry’s faces is one of the predominant driving factor behind the movie. Psihoyos, like most of the viewing audience the film caters to, is not aware of the magnitude of Taiji dolphin slaughter before consulting O’Barry. Psihoyos, intrigued by O’Barry’s shocking claims, decides to pursue the story further in the form of a documentary. O’Barry, who captured and trained dolphins for the show Flipper, expresses regret when facing the realization that his actions led to the monetization and widespread popularity of dolphin based entertainment. In several instances, O’Barry is remorseful that his involvement with Flipper subsequently led to the systematic dolphin hunting in Taiji. He contends that he needs to fight against dolphin captivity and the sale of mercury laden dolphin meat as they are direct consequences of his actions. O’Barry’s strong sense of guilt adds urgency and legitimacy to his cause; his authority as an activist is validated, as he is experienced both as a captor and liberator of dolphins. His sense of obligation to save dolphins ultimately increases the likelihood that the viewer will support his beliefs and perspectives.

Taiji fishermen boasting about their previous whale killing experiences.

Taiji fishermen boasting about their previous whale killing experiences.

The Cove also frequently examines the apparent lack of guilt of the Taiji fishermen and the Japanese IWC representatives that protect them. The representatives are characterized by Psihoyos as bureaucratic enablers of unnecessary dolphin butchery. The fishermen are portrayed without any sense of compassion, often laughing or taunting the documentary film crew after killing dolphins. The fishermen, who do not seem disturbed by their violent conduct, often berate or mock the concerned filmmakers. Psihoyos later references other activist movements in order to strengthen his own; he includes footage from Tsuchimoto’s Minamata: The Victims and Their World in order to draws comparisons between the harmful actions of Chisso executives and the IWC delegates responsible for the dolphin slaughter. Both the fishermen and IWC representatives responsible for the killings are portrayed as uncaring, distant, and emotionally vacant; their detached behavior is in many ways similar to Tsuchimoto’s representation of the Chisso executives. The voices of Psihoyos and O’Barry are also evocative of the strong demand for justice present during the Minamata protests.

The large Seaworld audience helps illustrate the wide spread implications of the dolphin crisis while simultaneously appealing to bystander guilt.

The large Seaworld audience helps illustrate the wide spread implications of the dolphin crisis while simultaneously appealing to bystander guilt.

Guilt also plays a crucial role in understanding the interplay between Psihoyos’ film and the audience. The inclusion of Seaworld imagery increases the relevance and applicability of the film to it’s viewer base. Most audience members are likely to possess some degree of knowledge of the theme park either through direct experience or outside observation. Use of these easily identifiable images make the audience feel in some way responsible for perpetuating the problem. Psihoyos induces subtle tinges of guilt in the viewer to increase the potency of his message. There are undercurrents of guilt in the film’s call to action as well. The film ends with a direct appeal to the viewers. In the final frames, the film uses inclusive language when speaking to the audience; the word “you” adds a sense of personal urgency and implies viewer involvement. The call to action plays off of contrasts established earlier in the film; many viewers would likely feel the need to align themselves as an activist rather than an “inactivist.”

It is clear that guilt is one of the main factors behind the creation of The Cove. Less apparent is Psihoyos’ use of guilt to more effectively enthrall and captivate his audience. While Psihoyos’ manipulation of viewer guilt does not detract from the film’s integrity or value, it should be examined to gain a more complete and multifaceted understanding of common documentary conventions.

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