“To twist Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase, it’s a case of (mostly) ‘white men saving cute dolphins from yellow men.'”
Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove (2009), which won the 2010 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, tells the story of Ric O’Barry, chief handler of the bottlenose dolphins that featured in the 1960s TV series Flipper. To atone for his role in making captive dolphins so popular in North America, O’Barry takes part in an expedition (made up of Americans and Canadians) to expose and end the capture and slaughter of dolphins in the small Japanese fishing village of Taiji.
The film is a slick piece of activist-guerrilla documentary making. Its engaging, thriller-like narrative is coupled with the use of camouflage, stuntmen, hydrophones, unmanned drones, and “military-grade” hi-def and night-vision cameras (while not a post-Iraq war film, the documentary’s military-interventionist style and shock-and-awe technology certainly bear this inheritance). No wonder that, in addition to its Oscar win, it has garnered audience favorite awards at film festivals worldwide (including Sundance and the Toronto HotDocs) and praise from film critics across North America.
But the film is problematic and irresponsible, for three main reasons. First, it stereotypes the Japanese. Apart from two resistant local councillors, all the other Japanese characters in the film are portrayed as colluding “bad guys” – the Taiji fishermen, who sell and slaughter the dolphins; the local police, who protect local fishing interests and threaten prying “outsiders”; and the Japanese government, depicted as secretive about the country’s whaling activities and deceitful and domineering in its dealings at the International Whaling Commission (the international body that regulates whaling). Japanese society, moreover, is caricatured. This is evident in such pronouncements in the film as: “It’s a real problem to stand up and be counted in Japan,” as though conformity is the Japanese way of life.
The film appears to make no effort to complicate its story. It could well have included the views of the local fishing communities to find out why the dolphin slaughter is so important to their livelihoods; or examined the IWC politics of other whaling nations such as Norway and Iceland, rather than targeting Japan’s alone.
Contrary to what the film states, moreover, Japan has a vibrant environmental movement (e.g., the Kiko Forum on climate change, World Wildlife Fund Japan, or the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center) and a history of community environmental protests, against industrial pollution, for instance. Why was input from such groups not sought? And why did the filmmakers not see it fit to team up with local activists or independent Japanese documentarians, rather than keeping it an exclusively North American affair? The film rationalizes its mission much too easily through black-and-white and us/them narrative construction, and unfounded allegations of Japanese collusion, cover-up, and conformity.
A second problem is that the film romanticizes and instrumentalizes dolphins. It is ironic that, while wishing to put an end to the use of dolphins as entertainment in amusement parks, The Cove is a commercial movie premised on the very use of dolphins for our entertainment. The film resorts to their Disneyfication, showing them to be affectionate and always smiling (just like Flipper), with O’Barry claiming they have human-like consciousness and intelligence. Dolphins may well be highly intelligent beings, but O’Barry’s facile anthropomorphization should give us pause: to sentimentalize these mammals is not to engage in genuine relationship with them but to objectify them, to endear them to us, the audience, so as to rationalize the movie’s mission – their rescue. This film is not the only one to be blamed here; the environmental movement often uses animals (baby seals, for example) for political purposes, transforming them into sentimentalized media icons.
A final problem is that The Cove disavows the West’s (especially North America’s) own role in the capture and slaughter of dolphins and other wildlife. Early on in the film, there is an admission that one of the key reasons for the high demand for dolphins is the creation of Sea Worlds and other animal amusement parks across North America (dolphins can fetch up to $150,000 each for this purpose). But soon this admission is dropped – I suspect because the obvious response would be that, rather than picking exclusively on Japan, one would need to agitate to close down such parks, or to seriously problematize the making of TV series such as Flipper.
And what about our own “coves”? To name just a few: the yearly slaughter of some 2,000 dolphins in Denmark’s Faroe Islands; our mechanized over-fishing and environmental contamination, that have resulted in growing numbers of endangered fish; and our industrial slaughterhouses, in which some 9 billion chickens and 35 million cows are killed annually in the U.S. and Canada.
In sidelining these inconvenient truths, the film’s final goal is the construction of Western environmental heroes. To twist Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase, it’s a case of (mostly) “white men saving cute dolphins from yellow men.” By focusing on a far-away other (culturally and politically inferior Japanese) rather than our own backyard, by depicting and rescuing adorable dolphins, the filmmakers prop themselves up as saviours. And as audience members, we are easily drawn in: we identify with the heroes of the film, feeling good about ourselves and “our” humanitarian icons. The result is a commercially successful and crowd-pleasing movie.
As environmentalists and citizens, of course we should end the capture and slaughter of dolphins. But we need also to be weary of attempts to do so that are too easily stereotypical, audience-pleasing, and self-congratulatory.