The Cove: Duality in Documentary

In The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos presents the issue of dolphin slaughter by Japanese fishermen in the context of a participatory and expository documentary film. The film not only provides a background on the subject but also depicts the filmmaker and his group of activists as they actively try to tackle the issue head-on. By presenting the overarching issue in an expository fashion side-by-side with the depiction of the director’s real-life participation in the discussion, The Cove works as an extremely successful piece of propaganda that somewhat demonizes the Japanese fishermen and government. This allows Psihoyos to more effectively win the trust and hopefully support of the audience.

The film makes use of a more expository approach in order to give the audience a basic idea of the killing of dolphins in Japan. The film uses footage from other sources of media including Minamata: The Victims and Their World and Flipper as well as provides a detailed account of the life and accomplishments of one Ric O’Barry, who is one of the main characters in the film. By using a more disconnected, seemingly objective approach, Psihoyos is able to distance his own opinions from the information that he is presenting to the audience. Although it is always obvious what side of the issue he is trying to push when he speaks directly to the camera, for the rest of the time he seems to be simply giving indisputable proof of the vice that is the hunting of dolphins. Viewers witness the transformation of Ric O’Barry from a dolphin trainer and television pioneer to a selfless and regretful protector of sea mammals, the barbed wire and heavy security fences that seal off a cove that is known as a spot where dolphins are caught and killed, and the possible effects of the mercury that taints the dolphin meat that is mislabeled and sold to ignorant consumers. These sections of the film are some of the most persuasive and allow the filmmakers to gain the trust and support of their viewers so that when they begin to participate in the events of the film it is implied that it’s the natural, necessary, and moral thing to do.

For most of the documentary, the director is directly involved in the events that are unfolding and unapologetically fights for one side of the debate, or the side against the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. Through this more participatory approach, the film takes on the tone of a struggle between good and evil since the characters are closely tied to the audience since they address the camera directly. The director and his crew of activists document as they go to Taiji and struggle against the establishment there that supports the killing of dolphins and allows the meat to be sold and mislabeled despite the fact that it is potentially dangerous due to high mercury levels. Seemingly unreasonable fishermen and police follow the team mercilessly and force them to find more creative ways to get the footage they need to raise awareness and get proof that the horrible slaughter is happening. Through all of this, Psihoyos and his crew interview various characters in the film as well as provide their own stories and opinions. This technique of depicting the active participation of the filmmakers in the events of the film causes the viewer to see the events that unfold as a fight between right and wrong and since the director and his team are the ones talking the most, they become the de facto “right” side and the Japanese fishermen and local officials become the bad guys. The filmmakers get more sympathy from the audience because they are more visible and relatable since they provide the most commentary and insight to the audience. Therefore, the audience is likely to side with them after watching them directly trying to stop the hunting of dolphins in Taiji. Therefore, by also relying on the genre of participatory documentary, The Cove can more persuasively present the cause of dolphin preservation.

By mixing the genres of participatory and expository documentary, The Cove makes a more credible and convincing case against the killing of dolphins for their meat. The expository sections build credibility and present facts that can be interpreted as proof of the evil of killing dolphins and whales and the corruption of the institutions that allow it to continue. The scenes in which the director and company intervene in the events of the film are also persuasive as they put the viewer on the same side of the conflict as the filmmaker, which hopefully leads them to also support the cause that the film is trying to raise awareness for. The blending of the genres of documentary in The Cove is not only a successful method of propaganda but also creates a engaging and fresh perspective on a interesting issue.

Ric O'Barry with the original Flipper in one of the expository sections of the film.

Ric O’Barry with the original Flipper in one of the expository sections of the film.

Footage of Japanese fishermen slaughtering dolphins in the cove in Taiji.

Footage of Japanese fishermen slaughtering dolphins in the cove in Taiji.

The filmmakers/activists plan their next move to get footage of the slaughter.

The filmmakers/activists plan their next move to get footage of the slaughter.


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