Good Activist Documentary Approaches In The Cove And Sharkwater Essay Example
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The activist documentary is a specific and unique subgenre of documentary, usually typified by the enhancement of the typical ‘issue’ documentary by creating one or more central characters in the role of protagonist as the ‘activist.’ In the case of the marine-life conservation activist docs The Cove and Sharkwater, Ric O’Barry and Rob Stewart, respectively, are placed in the role of the ‘activist,’ the films giving a relatively large amount of focus to their personas and role in the issue as the issue themselves. Despite their ostensible similarities, however, it is The Cove’s comparative consistency in its focus on the dolphin industry issue as opposed to lionizing its activist subject that makes it more successful than the slightly more self-aggrandizing Sharkwater.
The goals of both of these documentaries are extremely similar, though they focus on entirely different animals – the defense of innocent sea creatures from the cruel, destructive hand of man. In the case of The Cove, Ric O’Barry and the documentary crew seek to expose the cruelty of dolphin hunting off the coast of Japan, which is utilized for commerce (e.g. selling dolphins to sea resorts, killing the remaining dolphins for their meat). In Sharkwater, however, Rob Stewart’s goal is to rehabilitate the reputation of the shark, which is hunted for sport and meat as well. Both of these documentaries work to “persuade audiences to protect the shared physical environment by increasing the amount of information and imagery available to a shared cognitive environment,” doing so by seeking to enlighten the audience as to the realities of their subject’s a) innocence and contribution to the marine ecosystem and b) impending danger at the hands of capitalist and social human enterprises (Hughes 1).
Because of their nature as activist documentaries, the activists themselves are placed front and center within the documentaries’ narratives. According to Hughes, the placement of a human element within an issue documentary, particularly one environment-related, is important: “the inclusion of the human and the wild animal in the frame is a technique used to raise awareness of the complex questions concerning human attitudes towards other animals as well as towards other human beings” (Hughes 1). This level of emphasis on the person as activist and individual is integral to both documentaries, but particularly within Sharkwater, which focuses so much on Stewart’s personal journey of overcoming his fear of sharks and learning to embrace them.
The Cove, on the other hand, provides O’Barry’s tale not just as a personal story, but his role as a member of a team seeking to expose a very specific type of abuse against the dolphins living off the coast of Japan. O’Barry’s history as the dolphin trainer on the Flipper TV show plays a substantial part in the character’s motivation to address the issue of dolphin hunting, as he feels partially responsible for the popularity of dolphins – this plays into the film’s exploration of him as a character very substantially. In this way, The Cove’s central human subject has a much more compelling and individual story; while Stewart simply wishes to find a way to overcome his generalized fear of sharks because of his inherent goodness, O’Barry has a specific path to redemption he needs to accomplish because of his feelings of complicity in the development of the dolphin hunting market. His quest to save the dolphins makes the stakes much more personal, and offers a marked improvement in drama and stakes than the relatively generic desires of Stewart to make peace with the sharks (Flores 1). While The Cove’s incendiary remarks about the Japanese hunting market may make the film feel one-sided and provocative, it is hard to argue with the compelling nature of the footage that is uncovered over the course of the film.
Another strategy both documentaries share is their emphasis on stunning ocean photography to help the audience sympathize even more with the marine life at the heart of each film. In Sharkwater’s opening sequence, this beauty is shown to directly have an influence on Stewart’s own perspective; as he holds a shark underwater, his arms around it, the shark itself extremely calm and patient with him. Stewart’s voiceover solidifies the film’s desire to help the audience, like Stewart, see sharks not as the popularized demons of the sea, but as innocent creatures that do not deserve the fear and hate humankind dispenses upon it. This sequence, along with many others in the film, features beautiful, high definition sea photography that provides an intriguing visual element that entices the audience to watch the film, while also becoming receptive to its message. Through this technique, Stewart likens himself to the audience, the film’s focus becoming the reversal of 50 years of pop culture to make humankind more empathetic towards animals.
On a similar note, The Cove uses stunning nature photography to capture the majesty of dolphins in their natural state. Bright shots of the deep blue sea, with schools of dolphins swimming underneath the fractured rays of sunlight shining through the water, implicitly connects dolphins with a kind of natural beauty that should be protected, thus further engaging the audience’s sympathies. Unlike Sharkwater, The Cove does not have to work as hard to convince its audience to be empathetic towards its subject matter – in fact, humanity’s attraction to dolphins is what led to the very hunting the film seeks to expose – which makes their initial goal, in a way, more difficult. However, they also manage to accomplish these goals through the harrowing nature of their night-vision scenes, the rampant corruption of the Japanese fishing market as shown through their clandestine investigation, and their direct call to action to rebel against the unethical killing of dolphins (Freeman 105).
One way in which The Cove beats Sharkwater on the basis of documentary craftsmanship is its stellar score. Documentary films will often use scores and instrumental music, like any other film, to manipulate the emotions of a captive audience (Hackley 1). The score, by J. Ralph, provides a fitting accompaniment to the film’s desire to be half activist documentary, half spy thriller: many of the film’s night-vision investigation scenes are scored with intense, brooding music focused chiefly on percussion and strings, helping to cinematically liken these sequences with those of action thrillers that take place in similar climes. Combined with the sweeping melodies that are played during the dolphin-swimming scenes, the score of the film clearly takes a theatrical, operatic stance on this important issue. Compare this to Sharkwater, whose intentions are similar but the music feels smaller in scale, more manufactured and synthetic, and The Cove’s sense of emotional resonance wins out.
Another way in which Sharkwater falls short of The Cove is the comparatively small stakes and deeply self-aggrandizing nature of the documentary itself. As the filmmaker and subject, there is something about Stewart’s quest for understanding and the championing of his causes that makes the whole enterprise feels self-satisfied. By being the director and making the film all about him, Sharkwater unintentionally takes the focus away from the sharks and more about his relationship to the sharks. By making O’Barry part of a team that includes other filmmakers, and giving him a more specific, compelling hand in what he is fighting against, The Cove’s motives feel somewhat less selfish.
Looking at both The Cove and Sharkwater as activist documentaries, both films offer substantial, deeply affecting and intriguing stances on the protection of their respective marine life. Both films center not just around dolphins and sharks, but around the people who wish to protect them and bring their message to the world in the form of a documentary film. By showing both the beauty of nature and the savagery of man in their stunning ocean photography and gripping footage of marine life hunting, both successfully convey to the audience the need to bring awareness to these issues. However, while both films perform admirably, The Cove’s immediacy, more compelling quest for its activist, and higher production value/dynamic scoring help elevate it slightly above Sharkwater, whose protagonist’s journey is ultimately self-aggrandizing.
Castellanos, Michaela. "Tragic Individualization & Irony in The Cove (Dir. Louie Psihoyos,
Flores, Lucien J. "Examining the Foundations of Documentary Film Through The
Cove." Student Pulse 4.05 (2012).
Freeman, Carrie Packwood. "Fishing for animal rights in The Cove: A holistic approach to
animal advocacy documentaries." (2012).
Hackley, Brianna Chanel. "Rhetoric of Social Change in Documentary Film Scores: An Analysis
of The Cove." (2012).
Hughes, Helen. "Humans, sharks and the shared environment in the contemporary eco-
doc." Environmental Education Research 17.6 (2011): 735-749.
Psihoyos, Louie (dir.) The Cove. Lionsgate, 2009. Film.
Selheim, Megan Elizabeth. Toward a political economy of activist documentary. Diss. Montana
Stewart, Rob (dir.). Sharkwater. Freestyle Releasing, 2006. Film.
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