The Construction of “We” and “Them” in The Cove

Released in 2009, The Cove is a documentary meant to expose the corrupt and secretive practices of dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, and subsequent distribution of mercury-laden dolphin meat in Japanese markets. In The Cove, Louie Psihoyos creates a sense of a collective struggle against the Japanese people and government who are keeping these practices under wraps, with selective interviews and the deliberate framing of Psihoyos’ journey serving to create a sense of unity among the audience which dehumanizes the Japanese people.

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Psihoyos doing the cool spy film thing

From the opening credits of the documentary, Psihoyos creates a sense of drama, implying that there are secrets to be discovered and inviting the audience to unveil those secrets alongside him. The opening credits are reminiscent of a heist film, with sequences shown as if they are viewed through spy equipment. The soundtrack similarly goes along with this attempt to create an atmosphere of intrigue. In his choice to frame the opening credits like so, Psihoyos draws the viewer into the “behind the scenes” of his documentary, allowing whoever is watching to feel included in the process of uncovering whatever secrets there are to be revealed in the proceeding film. Psihoyos implies from the beginning that in creating The Cove, he has performed some sort of heist of knowledge and justice—and the viewer, from the beginning, gets to feel as if they are part of that heist. Thus the documentary is set up in a way where the viewer feels included. Psihoyos creates a “we” around his mission in the documentary which is intended to be inclusive of the viewers.

As the documentary continues, one notable aspect is the lack of in-depth exploration into the perspective of the Japanese people, both in Taiji and outside of Taiji where the dolphin killings take place. This serves to reinforce a sense of “we”-ness for the viewers while creating a “them”-ness by positioning the Japanese people as a vague and often menacing “other”. In The Cove, Louis Psihoyos and Ric O’Barry encounter a number of Japanese fishermen local to Taiji who attempt to block them off from filming where the dolphin slaughter happens. The fishermen are only seen as obstructions, obstacles to a larger truth. There is no attempt seen in the film to make contact with them as human beings and to illuminate their personal perspective on the dolphin meat trade. Instead, Psihoyos only frames them as nameless enemies to the pursuit of justice.

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An unimpressive attempt to speak with Taiji locals

In addition, Psihoyos’ attempts to “interview” the families of the fishermen is lacking—rather than putting Psihoyos himself and the people he talks to on an equal footing, he only asks them in English leading questions about whether or not they know that the fishermen are poisoning people. There is no effort put into allowing these people to express themselves in their native language, and the footage and backdrop suggests that these questions were posed spontaneously. Through not allowing the local people of Taiji their own voice and not portraying their perspective on the issue at hand, Psihoyos successfully marginalizes them in the film as an unsympathetic “other”, increasing the viewer’s connection to the struggle of the dolphins and Ric O’Barry. The fishermen of Taiji and their families are barely shown as human, with their voices barely heard and their thoughts only haltingly expressed, and as thus, the viewer remains firmly on the side of Psihoyos.

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Some unenthused councilmen—hey, aren’t these the good guys?

Even the Japanese people who are supposed to be treated as sympathetic figures do not receive respectful treatment within the way Psihoyos frames the narrative. The two councilmen who are shown to be aware of the dolphin killing in Taiji and who oppose the dolphin meat being fed to schoolchildren seem to be morally aligned with Psihoyos’ view in the documentary, yet their segment in the film still lacks depth. Within the film, they are presented as passive, shrinking violets, in contrast to Psihoyos and O’Barry, who are men of action. They are also shot against the backdrop of a shrine gate, which positions them in a uniquely “Japanese” environment. Psihoyos deliberately frames the two councilmen as “Japanese” through the setting of the interview, again separating them from what is presumably familiar to the viewer and therefore failing to evoke sympathy for the men by emphasizing their foreignness. So although the Taiji city councilmen seem to be understanding of Psihoyos’ cause, they still fit in with the “other” of the “Japanese” that Psihoyos constructs in the rest of the film.

Throughout The Cove, Psihoyos deliberately draws the audience into the “we” that he constructs on the side of what he believes is justice, and just as deliberately leaves the Japanese people out of this group that includes the viewer. With the very limited selections of interviews and clips that he chooses to show of Japanese people speaking for themselves, Psihoyos isolates them from the viewer, making them unsympathetic and alien in order to push his own viewpoint.

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