The Cove: propaganda or documentary?
At England’s just-concluded Sheffield Doc/Fest, the old questions of when a film is a documentary, when it is propaganda and why it matters were given a new workout in a debate entitled Campaigning Documentaries: The Thin Line Between Passion and Propaganda. At issue are films billed as documentaries that seek to change the world rather than simply document it. Are such films really documentaries and does it really matter?
To the first question, purists who insist that a documentary should remain impartial say no, but others argue that no documentary is 100% unbiased and that point making and opinion swaying is a positive thing that should be embraced.
According to David Cox’s account of the Friday debate in The Guardian, the intentions behind a documentary raise important questions about who is funding the documentary and how they’re guiding the message. This is a problem in an era where money for the more traditional documentaries is drying up, but a documentary with the right message can find backing from a like-minded organization. In the eyes of the traditionalists, no matter how right the cause, these films are “propaganda, corporate video or advertising” and they don’t deserve the documentary label. Cox quotes Nick Fraser, the editor of BBC’s Storyville documentary program: “If Dr Goebbels appeared with a huge sack of money, there would be documentary film-makers queueing around the block to take it.”
It’s interesting because it was at the Sheffield Doc/Fest where this year’s edition of the Cinema Eye Honors announced that seven of their nominations went to Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove, a film backed by the Oceanic Preservation Society (of which Psihoyos is the executive director), an organization which makes no secret of its mission on its website conveniently linked to from the film’s official website:
“The Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) is a non-profit organization founded in 2005 by photographers, filmmakers, and eco-activists. Sparked by the love of the oceans, and concern at their evident decline, OPS shows the world, through visual media, what is happening on 70% of our planet. OPS hopes that individuals make a difference so that future generations need not adapt to a diminished environment. Our first film, The Cove, has won Audience Awards around the globe. It has also prompted many to take action to protect our oceans, its creatures, and our planet.”
It’s a noble cause and one I support, but in this case I think the film was weakened by its narrow focus and failure to give more than lip service to opposing viewpoints. How can anyone argue in favor of murdering dolphins? I’m sure the billion or so people on the planet who practice Hinduism wonder the same thing about our practice of killing and eating cows. The fact is, arguments are made (tradition, economics etc.), but they’re barely addressed in the film.
Worse still, even the most compelling argument in favor of the film’s cause – dolphin meat’s relatively high mercury content – is mentioned but largely abandoned in favor of preying on our emotions stemming from our love of the animal, enhanced ironically by the very dolphin captivity programs the film’s subject Ric O’Barry is so resolutely opposed to.
Is a film that makes no secret of its propagandistic intent worthy of awards under a documentary label? In the end I think the distinction is partly semantic, but it’s important that audiences inform themselves about what they’re lining up for and ask themselves what part of the story might not be told because it’s not what the backers are paying for.
At the same time, as funding for more traditional documentaries seems to be drying up, it’s all the more important to draw a bright line between documentary and propaganda and to ask ourselves whether we’re really ready to see economics be the downfall of the former.