If you’re the kind of person who reads movie blogs, you’ve probably heard of The Cove by now. This 2009 documentary won the Oscar for best documentary feature. It created a certain degree of controversy upon its release. It’s notorious for pointing a camera at something plenty of people didn’t want you to see. That’s always going to garner a certain amount of notoriety.
In short, The Cove is about dolphin hunting. Specifically in Japan. Director Louie Phihoyos heads to Taiji in Wakayama, Japan to meet with former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry. Barry was best known as the man who caught and trained the dolphins used in the TV show Flipper in the 60s. In the wake of widespread dolphin captivity after the shows popularity, O’Barry became a dolphin activist, arrested numerous times for freeing captured dolphins.
The film opens with him already persona non grata in Taiji, having trespassed into the isolated cove where the fishermen annually drive dolphins in for a mass kill. The rest of the film plays out as they try to get the event on film, outlining the resistance they meet from the local fishermen and government, and detailing the issues of whaling and dolphin hunting on an international level.
I’m not going to say that The Cove is an ineffective documentary because it certainly is. There’s a good eye for capturing what tension there is and playing up the danger. There are multiple shots of O’Barry in the opening talking about how he knows the Japanese fishermen would kill him if they had the chance. In Japan. Where the murder rate is less than a tenth of the United States and violent crime–while not unheard of–is relatively rare. The footage of the dolphin kill is certainly horrific enough to be effective. But what I was struck by most watching The Cove was the simple fact that everyone involved in the movie seemed to be ignorant to the point of gross negligence in presenting their case.
The problem with The Cove is a problem most documentaries seem so careful to avoid in the modern era–ethnocentrism. The problem of The Cove isn’t that there’s these dolphin kills and that whaling is an issue. It’s that it fails to realize that the issue is deeper than ‘evil Japanese fisherman killing pretty dolphins’ and is instead a cultural problem.
Whaling in Japan is a centuries old tradition. Before most of Western society had even identified whales as more than sea monsters, Japan was hunting whales. By the 1600s, Taiji was a center for sophisticated whaling methods that have changed little in the ensuing 400 years. Certainly as technology has improved the scope of the operations have grown, but it is as indelible a part of the culture as something like samurai which date back to a similar era.
The Cove doesn’t address that. In fact, it seems completely ignorant of many aspects of Japanese culture, such as the desire to save face when confronted with scandal or the general xenophobia that takes root especially when foreigners come in and start accusing and prying in the wrong places.
It’s amazing how colonial the whole thing seems. A bunch of white men with ironclad ideals about animal rights show up and without any sort of greater discussion playing out about the simple fact that most of the people they’re fighting don’t even understand the problem.
And before you recoil in horror about ‘how could they be so blind?’ imagine if you would a Hindu person coming along and making a shocking documentary about how we slaughter cows for food. People are up in arms. Calls are made to cease bovine slaughter at the earliest opportunity.
Many Americans would laugh in the face of such demands. Most would certainly just shrug and chalk it up to crazy cultures that aren’t ours. And yet how is that any different? Yes, you can say there’s a matter of degree, that dolphins and whales are endangered. Sure. That argument would be valid.
But The Cove barely makes an ecological conservation argument. Instead it goes for the emotional resonance of how human these dolphins seem. How much we identify with them. And by going for the easy emotional button it cuts its legs out from under itself, turning what could be an objective look at a cultural problem into an us-vs-them story about how these bad men do bad things to innocent animals and we have to stop them.
I can’t condone that kind of message. Its the message of cultural superiority, the self-defeating our-way-or-the-highway that so regularly hamstrings the worst aspects of animal activism (PETA springs to mind as the most public example.) It twists the message of the film into something manipulative and harmful on both sides of the issue. Painting with such a broad brush, being so ready to turn another opinion into the enemy, isn’t the purpose of a documentary.
There’s another word for that: propaganda. And like all propaganda, it’s more concerned with enlisting than informing. As rational people in a globalized world, we deserve better than that. So does Japan, even if we disagree with them on these things. So do the whales and dolphins. Because irrational extremism isn’t going to solve the big picture problems. It simply drives everyone into a corner. Or in this case, back into the cove.