Climate change continues to be the source of inspiration for filmmakers. Ecocinema is a film art form that manifests in both fiction and non-fiction with the purpose of educating and disseminating environmentally conscious messages through the use of film. The primary persuasive strategy adopted by ecocinema documentaries is the fear appeal; however, fear appeals require astute attention to their conditional elements and are a challenge for documentarians. This essay distinguishes between the holistic and individualistic ethics, as well as the problems of anthropocentricism. In addition, understanding the tactics used by each ethic provides a framework for analyzing ecocinema. Using three ecological documentaries: 11th Hour (2007), The Age of Stupid (2009), and The Cove (2009), this essay describes the faults in fear appeals and an alternative strategy eco-documentaries can adopt to empower audiences to take proactive action to protect the climate. This essay argues that ecocinema, as an art form, needs to be understood firstly in context with its origins, ethos, the execution of their messages using fear appeals, in order to contextualize the evolution of the documentary form leading to the creation of an ecocinema documentary trend that reflects the growing environmental urgency. In the end, this essay seeks to establish a theoretical framework for deconstructing ecocinema.
Climate change has reached an almost irreversible state, a consequence brought on by a myriad of issues: overconsumption, over-population, unsustainable lifestyles, deforestation, unprecedented land development, air and water pollution, market failure, irresponsible irrigation, toxic pollutants, global warming, the global economy, species extinction, etc… (Donohoe, 2003). An external viewpoint would consider these issues beyond the scope of any solution, the tactile strategies, both pragmatic and theoretic, are beyond the scope of human ingenuity; however, environmentalists unanimously agree that the current, central root problem to the environmental crisis can be resolved by recognizing the futility of the anthropocentric worldview. Anthropocentrism is a view that regards humanity as being the center of all existence. Immanuel Kant, a highly regarded and prominent philosopher, stated, “Man … is the ultimate purpose of creation here on Earth” (Kant, 1914), a viewpoint that has permeated across human consciousness in the form of man and his relationship with nature. Early rationalists like Pythagoras and Plato insisted that humanity and nature needed to be separated, stating that nature was not the source of empirical knowledge and that only through abstract, inductive reasoning can reality be established (Cottingham, 1984). Descartes’s statement “I think, therefore I am” is a manifestation of the individual consciousness existing separately from outside influence and that the outside environment was not necessary to confirm, or validate the man’s own existence. Descartes suggested a dichotomy between mind and matter exists, believing that the mind remains in central focus while externalities (i.e. nature) bore no viable intrinsic value (Gillespie, 2000). Rationalists like Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Descartes would lay the foundation for an atomistic view of the world, arguing that reality was composed of an intrinsic logic. Nature was to be understood in mechanical terms, broken down to reveal its internal mechanisms in isolation. Throughout the Enlightenment and Reformation, eminent philosophers and scientists developed synchronous concepts and ideas that would become the basis for scientific research, objectivity and the understanding of the natural world. Under the microscope, the natural world and its secrets would be revealed, analyzing its constituents in isolation for the purpose of extraction, replication, and exploitation. Since nature had no intrinsic value and its existence was merely to serve the needs of humanity, man separated from nature and began to see itself as a superior entity, leading to the development of anthropocentrism. When an individual examines the climate change crisis with an anthropocentric worldview, the problems mentioned earlier appear beyond the scope of resolution, that humanity cannot avoid total environmental destruction—problems will always be seen in isolation, never as whole. In isolation, problems appear grand, impossible, but as a whole examined in relation to other problems linkages can be made and a plan can be devised—this perspective is an ecological paradigm called ecocentrism.
Rapid growth and heavy industrialization have transformed the planet at an unprecedented and alarming speed. While some environmental problems have isolated conditions and can be remedied immediately (i.e. garbage in a lake of a local municipality), other environmental problems, on a global scale caused by the activities of billions of people, are not so easily remedied—the greater the scale of problem, the greater the chance of conflicting interests preventing action.
While this essay is not intended to describe the basic tenants of the environmental movement and its details therein, a brief overview is necessary in order to situate documentaries and their articulation of their most fundamental purpose—to inspire, educate and kindle individual activism. Persistent environmental degradation has negatively impacted human health and well-being, namely through direct and indirect means, as well as immediate and long-term consequences. Immediate and direct effects are visible and localized, meaning that a solution for only that single source of problem may be resolved without the backdrop of other, more enormous problems. Individual health and well-being may be compromised in indirect and immediate ways; for example, environmental degradation may effect crop yields, resulting in food scarcity and locals to relocate (a phenomenon recently described as environmental refugees). Famine, a by-product of both natural and human affected natural disaster (indirect), may result in local disputes, fighting, and even death (immediate). Environmental degradation may also manifest in direct, but long-term (delayed) ways in which environmental consequences reveal themselves slowly throughout time; for example, cancer has largely been examined in relation with both inside and outside influences; outside influences are considered carcinogenic chemical substances and exposure to pesticides released into the air, contaminating water supplies and exposure to ionizing radiation (National Cancer Institute, 2003). Outside influences are under great scrutiny, because it cannot be admittedly held that environmental degradation is a cause of cancer; nevertheless, it is a widely understood that environmental influences play a role in its onset. Environmentalists assert that there is a direct correlation to the increasing degradation of the environment and rising cancer rates, arguing that toxicity levels in both air and water have direct ramifications for public health; a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute (2003) revealed a linkage, or a causal connection, between increasing exposure to chemicals and their capacity to trigger cancer growth; naturally, such certainty provides no closure for skeptics and cancer continues to manifest in delayed, long-term ways. Lastly, environmental threats to human health can occur in indirect, but also long-term ways; for example, the indirect activities performed daily by millions of individuals indirectly causes ozone depletion and global warming leading to droughts, food scarcity, and even rising temperatures. Environmentalists assert the understanding of these aforementioned four manifestations are central to protecting the environment before the impending environmental apocalypse. This understanding is critical for ecological films, because directors may argue any combination of these four direct vs. indirect scenarios.
Ecocinema is a film art form that manifests in both fiction and non-fiction with the purpose of educating and disseminating environmentally conscious messages through the use of film, one of the most easily accessible media forms today. Unlike ecocriticism, analysis of ecological messages embedded in literary texts, ecocinema has largely been ignored in academic research and, consequently, presents a challenge for this undertaking. With certainty there have been few publications that have investigated ecocinema, but none have analysed the evolution of the documentary form leading to the birth of a powerful, highly effective ecocinema experience that this essay argues is a direct manifestation of the urgency and desperation of documentarians to address climate change. The intent of describing those previous four direct vs. indirect arguments were to trace the foundations, and the urgency that these documentarians wish to present.
Ecocinema documentaries attempt to cross a bridge intersecting both traditional and often overtly counter-traditional methods in order to convey its message. This essay will begin examining the traditional documentary form, its purpose, and the messages typically contained in them. All documentarians are driven by a motive; some may be educational, political, or even spiritual and, as such, must be decoded and analyzed as argumentative texts. This essay does not seek to provide the most comprehensive information about the history and development of documentary tradition, except the vital aspects that concern documentary filmmaking, its ethos and its predominant argumentation in relation to ecological cinema (“ecocinema”). This essay begins by charting these documentary traditions using three environmental documentaries: The 11th Hour (2007), The Age of Stupid (2009), and The Cove (2009). By drawing comparisons between these films and how they apply documentary concepts, a link will be drawn to show the ever-evolving documentary genre in favor of more dramatic, thought-provoking representations.
Climate change has encountered a storm of controversy and evident dismissal by skeptics arguing against the core of environmental ethos. Environmental ethics is complex and intricate and cannot be the subject of thorough investigation here; however, a brief overview of its basic tenants will provide valuable insight to the challenges environmental documentarians face as they negotiate between documentary standards and a unifying environmental ethic. This essay will also explore fear appeals using Witte’s (1992) seminal analysis of fear, its messages and its constituents because environmental discourse is rife with fear and if its instrumentation is justifiable. Fear is a powerful emotion and has been the subject of several disciplines, particularly in the public health sector; however, the results of fear appeals have shown less than positive outcomes. Environmentalists need to be understood in context with their driving purpose and motivation as well as the problems they have encountered—simply put, resistance merely compounds their initiative further. This essay argues that ecocinema, as an art form, needs to be understood firstly in context with its origins, ethos, the execution of their messages using fear appeals, in order to contextualize the evolution of the documentary form leading to the creation of an ecocinema documentary trend that reflects the growing environmental urgency.
Documentary is a highly reflective genre used to expose truths and describe the intricate world in a comprehensive linear fashion for the audience. Documentary is a discursive text that provides first-hand experience in an engaging way despite the pressures that confound its creation. Documentaries have always been a source of comfort for those seeking the truth for two reasons: the raw textures and sequences in documentaries give the illusion that it is conveying an unaltered world; second, documentaries do not deploy fictionalized elements. Based on this dilemma and relative to debates about the “real”, core beliefs of a documentaries are based on a “fraud”, a false pretense and claim of the real as the ultimate truth despite those dilemmas and moral issues they represent.
In 1921 filmmakers began to record people in the daily routine of their lives, and edited this footage into a coherent way to either produce a story or make an argument. A pioneer in the development of documentary theory, John Grierson (1930-1972) distinguished documentaries existing separately from other factual cinematic forms like scientific/nature films, travelogues, journalistic newsreels (see Citizen Kane ). Grierson theorized that documentaries used a “creative treatment of actuality” (Morris, 1987), meaning that documentaries transcend mere arrangements and descriptions of actuality but that they express aesthetic treatment of its subjects—documentaries do not just mechanically and passively observe the real. With newer technologies, documentaries begin to apply more inventive and aesthetically pleasing ways of dramatizing their argument, often resembling fictional elements in style and technique. Without an inventive storyline and actors, documentaries rely on available technological resources to provide a convincing narrative, the ingenuity of editing and crosscutting to create elaborate juxtapositions and hyperboles.
Equipped with the newly invented 19mm portable lightweight camera, filmmakers began to document their surroundings without predefined goals or preparation whilst adopting a journalistic principle of non-intervention and observation—this became known as the Direct Cinema (aka. “fly on the wall”) tradition (Chapman, 2009). In the 1970s, Direct Cinema was further compounded by the onset of newer technologies allowing more convenient recording, like camcorders and miniaturized equipment that would enable greater mobility and flexibility. As the documentary genre was approaching mass appeal in the late 1990s, television broadcast networks were putting increasing pressure on documentaries by applying stricter rating systems and a scheduling system to reinforce desirable subjects for this genre (Chapman, 2009). In the meantime, filmmakers began to see that a fully impartial technique would not be sufficient and that additional production techniques would permit greater self-reflexivity in the genre—this movement became known as Cinema Verité. Proponents of Cinema Verité argued that the principles of Direct Cinema only made sense in parts of a documentary where it was necessary; additionally, the “fly on the wall” expression can easily be replicated and reproduced (i.e. with available light, shaky camera). With the ongoing boom of television documentaries, the genre itself began to reinforce journalistic practices using eyewitness footage captured by handheld cameras, interview styles—reconstructions and/or elaborate footage with superficial still photography were shunned (Chapman, 2009). Television had conquered documentary practice and caused confusion among filmmakers about which movement they should follow: Direct Cinema vs. Cinema Verité. With television having defined what “documentary” should be, filmmakers sought to deviate away from the Griersonian tradition towards a more reflective contemporary style. Increasing confusion and uncertainty in the definition of documentary itself, documentary’s loose concept has inspired many to experiment with the treatment of so-called “reality”—its demand never waivered.
In many countries, public service broadcasting was used to educate its citizens on a number of subjects and the chosen instrument became documentary. Since its inception, documentaries have been an integral part of public service broadcasting appearing in lecture halls, factories, community centers and other alternative venues (Chapman, 2009)—documentary had a mission to encourage social cohesion and familiarity with the values of a social democratic society. In the view of public service broadcasts (PBS, CBC), documentaries were bounded by journalistic ethics and education as part of a hybridized institutional service called “reportage” (Chapman, 2009). Documentaries have since occupied a valuable space in public discourse.
Documentaries have since manifested in many forms, often becoming indistinguishable whether or not these films can truly be considered “documentary”. For example, television and its constant demands for more attractive documentary formats had reshaped the genre into various subformats: docu-drama, surveillance and undercover shows (COPS), chat shows (Jerry Springer), fact-based drama (Madmen, Band of Brothers), Mockumentary (documentary satirization, e.g. The Office), Reality TV (Big Brother, The Bachelor). These formats have made it increasingly difficult for documentary to allege their truths, and to distinguish themselves from these formats (Chapman, 2009). Documentaries may deploy any number of these formats at any time, where convenient, to create a convincing argument. In the view of documentary theory, non-fiction and fiction are two rigid definitions that cannot be so readily applied. Evidently, defining documentary is a challenging task and the most appealing solution is to define it against what it is not. Ellis (2002) described documentary in relation to fiction: “The gamble is that documentary will appear more real because it is less fictional” (Chapman, 2009: 15). Both non-fiction and fiction films use creative elements, like music arrangements, expositional editing and crosscutting, close-ups for dramatic effect, as well as character development. The minor difference separating documentary from fiction are the indicators of motivation: in fiction, one is exposed to a character’s various internal/external motivations whilst in non-fiction the viewer experiences only available information.
Environmental documentaries follow this tradition and development of documentary theory rather closely and, in some ways, call upon more inventive techniques to attract and engage the audience with environmental concerns. An aspect of environmental documentary that separates itself from others is its application of fear. With the knowledge of documentary theory in hand, observing the way these three documentaries apply fear as an excellent method of determining, partially, the effectiveness of environmentally conscious documentaries.
All documentaries are driven by a purpose and wish to reveal something that the viewer did not know, or did not take enough time to acknowledge. Some environmental documentaries want to expose the intrinsic beauty of nature applying elaborate slow-motion photography, scenic landscape establishing shots and highly dramatic action sequences with the intent of revealing nature’s profound intricacies. Other documentaries are driven by urgency and pressure to make the audience understand and act accordingly. The primary appeal these documentaries use is fear and this will be the focus of this section.
Along the continuum of logical to emotional appeals, fear has been the subject of over 50 years of research because of its capacity to trigger relatively immediate and/or long-term attitudinal behavioural change. Furthermore, the application of fear is highly adaptable to a number of scenarios requiring appropriate behavioral change (i.e. HIV/AIDS campaigns to political fear-inducing campaigns of imminent threats), whether they work or not has been the fundamental concern of this research. With the approaching environmental apocalypse, according to many heavily active environmental agencies, documentaries cannot afford the luxury of any other form of appeal—fear is the most powerful appeal, they believe, capable of great change. This section analyses this appeal and provides a basis for deconstructing the three chosen documentaries. Without an effective use of the fear appeal, environmentalists will only encourage maladaptive behaviors resulting in poor outcomes; instead, ecocinema directors must strategically apply fear for maximum results. Once this brief overview is complete, the following three documentaries will be assessed for the degree to which they use fear appeals.
It is the view of this essay that environmentalists use the fear appeal as a last and final attempt at kindling the fire of progress. Environmentalists have come under attack from all sides, including their ethics, even those who are a part of the environmental movement. In order to contextualize the reason why environmentalists use fear, it will be valuable to assess the core discipline of environmental ethics, ecoterrorism and environmental documentaries. The accumulating dissent and disregard for the environment may have a contributing effect in an ecocinema director’s decision to use a fear appeal.
The following section is an attempt to draw parallels with the accumulating dissent, as described above, in relation to fear appeals and its usage by environmental documentarians.
Eco-documentaries argue that protecting the environment is man’s moral responsibility, to cherish nature for its intrinsic value and beauty that remains inexplicable remaining beyond the dominion of man. Environmental ethics will provide an excellent basis for understanding why fear appeals are so often used in environmental discourse. Environmental ethics has had an old, and timely history, but its prevalence accelerated in philosophy during the 1960s (McShane, 2009). Environmentalists argue that the traditional worldview is maladaptive and a new consciousness and perspective was necessary to deter total environmental apocalypse.
Environmentalists attacked the anthropocentric worldview immediately, a philosophical position arguing that human beings and its interests are absolute above all things. Anthropocentrism is the assumption that human beings and/or their interests are morally more significant than anything else, and that all things matter (morally) only in relation to the way it affects human beings and their interests (McShane, 2009). As described earlier, the anthropocentric worldview has had a long history and hundreds of years of conditioning, reinforced in philosophy and the natural sciences. Anthropocentrism had the tutelage of social Darwinism, an imperialistic and colonialist mindset transferred onto nature—nature and the environment existed only to serve man’s needs. Anthropocentric thought is, environmentalists argue, engrained into the subconscious mind and needs to be remedied before it is too late. Environmentalists needed to prove that nature had an intrinsic value, that is, the natural world had value in its own right independent of human interests—this would become “the defining problem for environmental ethics” (Callicott, 2009: 214). Other proponents argued that it was possible to disavow anthropocentrism but was not necessary to declare that nature had an intrinsic value. Philosophers argued that current theoretical approaches are human-centered, that a human nevertheless must provide value—even if it is implicit, a human was the source of value creation. Others have argued that such an ethical position, as described before, follows a natural reductionist position, assuming that intrinsic value may be applied to nature while ignoring the instrumental web of values that exist (things having value as a means to an end) vs. intrinsic value (that things have value as an end in itself) (McShane, 2009). Intrinsic value and moral value propositions go hand-in-hand with environmental ethics.
There is contention within the environmental community about the ethical path that they should adopt. Some environmentalists follow an individualistic ethic, arguing that: “individual persons, animals, plants etc. are valuable in their own right, while the value of the larger wholes that these individuals comprise—species, ecosystems, the biosphere, etc.—is merely derivative of the value of the individual constituents” (McShane, 2009: 411)—this view is considered biocentric, a view that all living things matter morally in its own right, often adopted by animal rights activists who insist that all animals have rights and seek self-preservation.
Those against individualistic ethics argued that the entire system as a whole become the epicenter of all value and that individual value would be assigned based on the contributions those individuals make to the system—this view became known as holism, or ecocentric environmental ethic (McShane, 2009). Holists argued that individualism would not work in that individualists would have to give equal rights to plants, wild animals, farm and domesticated animals without differentiation, and that this indifference would create a pacifying effect—no individual entity could be protected and differences needed to be made. Individualists sought a counter argument: holists were in fact “eco-fascists,” because they would dare subject a hierarchical order of value judgments on nature and the environment—a human-centered paradigm (McShane, 2009). Furthermore, individual entities give value to the ecosystem, not that the ecosystem gives value to itself. Tensions between individualists and holists are quite intense and persistent even to this day and the differences are clear, as well as the allegiances holists make versus those that individualists have. For example, holists are typically organizational and transnational structures that attempt to devise an ordering system of protection and measures to species, flora, and the general environment whereas individualists typically belong to coalitions of self-operated and small underground sects. Figure 1 describes a brief overview of the two contested positions in environmental ethics:
When projected onto current institutions that operate at both biocentric (individualistic) and ecocentric (holistic) arenas, one notices a distinct pattern that separates the ideological positions occupied by both ethical positions. Figure 2, below, illustrates a table of institutions separated by their ideological positions:
When applying the concepts of holistic and biocentric ethical positions and charting them across environmental documentaries, distinctions become clear. The understanding is that holistic ethical positions use more grand and expansive claims, focus on the whole system and make causal connections on individual events to emphasize their connectedness to the system. In contrast, biocentric (individualistic) ethics suggests that the individual, single entities each have their own right, and purpose, so these documentaries would apply an argument based on the privileges of a single entity and argue for the sake of that entity alone without regard to the system itself.
Within these two ethical subdivisions arise several manifestations, ranging from a continuum of heavily active to highly passive, each deploying its own level of “radical environmentalism”. The dissent within these polar ethical positions have given rise to a variety of radical environmentalist movements. The following three documentaries: The 11th Hour (2007), Age of Stupid (2009) and The Cove (2009) each have their own selective ethical positions as well as aspects of radical environmentalism. Taylor (2005) describes environmental radicalism and its manifestations below:
…it is […] important to understand radical environmentalism as a cluster of environmental political philosophies, and corresponding social movements, which claim to understand the roots of the environmental crisis and offer effective solutions to it. In this sense radical environmentalism includes not only groups like EARTH FIRST! AND THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT, but also bioregionalists and green anarchists, deep ecologists and ecopsychologists, ecofeminists and participants in the feminist spirituality movement, Pagans and Wiccans, antiglobalization protestors and some animal-liberation activists. (p. 1326)
Each of these environmental philosophies and social movements are all reacting to an urgent situation, fuelled by both philosophical and ethical dissent to claim each of their positions as significant. Their corresponding persuasion tactic is typically the fear appeal, but not exclusively. The following section discusses ecoterrorism, a radical strategy adopted by individualists. The following section is crucial, simply because it provides the basis for understanding the urgency and desperate measures taken by radical environmentalists to promote and ignite the environmental movement within passive and typically uninterested public audience.
Environmentalists have sought to inspire the public to take productive action for a long time; however, they have taken measures that may appear, to the outside world, quite detrimental to the environmental movement as a whole. As a matter of perspective, environmentalists consider massive pollution and large-scale genetically modified organisms, laboratory testing, and animal rights abuse as an eco-terrorist act perpetrated by transnational corporations and reinforced by complacent government agencies. On the other hand, these corporations and government agencies view the practices of these highly active environmental coalitions with great suspicion and dread.
Ecological terrorists, or ecoterrorists, are individuals who engage in independent (or within a small cell unit) acts of violence and employ tactics that are commonly used by terrorists for the purpose of securing a sociopolitical agenda in order to protect animal rights and, more generally, the environment (Department of Homeland Security, 2008). The ecoterrorist movement is largely decentralized and transnational, driven by the motives of people around the world who believe that they have a moral obligation to protect the environment by whatever means necessary. They argue that current and traditional methods of environmental conservation and protection have fallen victim to bureaucratic and inefficient means, complicated by procedures and standards, which prevent them from becoming agents of change. Those that employ traditional means of garnering environmental change are typically those that follow the holistic ethic versus those who follow an individual ethic (see Figure 2). Militant ecological and animal rights activists see themselves as the only sources of change and those who stand against them, or are complicit in the destruction of Earth (actively or passively) are considered guilty. According to the United States’s Department of Homeland Security (2008):
Ecoterrorists have perpetrated more illegal acts commonly associated with terrorism on U.S. soil than any other known group, including al-Qaeda and radical Islamic militants. At present, the economic cost of these acts exceeds $100 million and is likely to grow in the future. (p. 1).
The dispersed and ill-coordinated nature of ecoterrorist cells poses a challenge for law enforcement, they see themselves as martyrs for a greater cause and, consequently, their rebellion and capture may often be seen as a reinforcement. With growing environmental disparity and dissent, tactics that ecoterrorist cells may use can range from physical assault to cyber-terrorism. The Animal Liberation Front formed in 1976 is deeply networked with official international and transregional agencies (Greenpeace) and other, less diplomatic agencies (the Sea Shepherds Conservation Society)—they have an operation in more than twenty countries (Department of Homeland Security, 2008). Figure 4 demonstrates the loose interconnectedness of ecoterrorist cells. They may not be in concert with each other; they may not even know what each cell is doing or if they exist, but that they are driven by information they acquire from a “trusted” source. The information source assumes no responsibility, or connection to periphery militia. Furthermore, there is greater decentralization and the overall abolishment of hierarchical structures—because each of them is led by the same cause, it does not matter who has a higher position. Figure 4 illustrates the type of structure and system employed by ecoterrorist militia versus Figure 5 from the Greenpeace Council (page 17).
A highly decentralized network will provide ecoterrorists with greater movement and flexibility in order to react quickly to environmental trespasses. Greenpeace is an example of an agency with little mobility and reduced reaction time; in addition, they have stakeholders and other interested parties of which they must respect.
The behavior of individualists compared to holists is fundamentally different: holists seek to affect an international scale, provide greater linkages between events and show an interconnectedness between the environment and humans—they are more likely to use fear appeals and appeals to logic in order to convey the urgency of saving the world as a whole, they seek to affect attitudes and change perspectives.
While these distinctions may seem crude, a distinct trend between general pro-environmental documentaries versus activist-driven documentaries is evident. Activist documentaries employ a fluid and flexible technique that may or may not adhere to documentary conventions—they may even overtly, or reflexively, abolish these conventions in favor of more relevant strategies for effective persuasion. Holistic ethical perspectives work within an anthropocentric society, believing that changes can be effected from within and likewise adopt an organizational structure similar to local bureaucracies in order to appeal and solicit other agencies and corporations to adopt environmentally friendly policies; the holistic structure is thereby inflexible, a good example is Greenpeace. An environmental documentary sponsored by an organization with a holistic agenda is likely to follow the rigid structures of traditional documentary practices, due to the expectations from stakeholders and the values they must uphold to the international community. The individualistic ethical perspective is the opposite, operated by grassroots agencies, supported and funded by other grassroots movements within their network. Ecoterrorists have no allegiances, and if they do it is unclaimed. While it would be incorrect to suggest that individualistic ethics and ecoterrorist activities may be interlinked, the tendency is that ecoterrorists adhere to an individualistic ethical philosophy, on the grounds that they wish to protect a single entity among the constellation of species and flora. With only a single focus, an animal liberation grassroots cell is capable of creating a highly controversial and memorable impression in a way that is different, unlike conventional documentary practice.
Anatomy of Fear
While the fear appeal provides a more reactive effect, as filmmakers assume, it is by no means the only appeal filmmakers’ use. Fear is highly complex and has a slightly unpredictable nature; therefore, appeals to fear should be used with caution. Since Witte’s (1992) seminal contribution to fear appeal research, a model was devised based on the collective findings of several studies in an attempt to coherently combine those findings into a pragmatic system. Witte (1992) developed the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) to explain the variations and possibilities of responses people may have to a fear appeal message. The EPPM model categorized responses into three sections: non-response, danger control responses, and fear control responses (Maloney, Lapinski, Witte, 2011). The EPPM model attempted to predict which of these three responses individuals are more likely to adapt based on their interactions between threat perceptions and their perceptions of efficacy to avert that threat (Maloney, Lapinski, Witte, 2011). The EPPM framework provides prediction “about people’s attitudinal, intentional, and behavioral responses to fear appeal messages based on their assessments of two central constructs: threat and efficacy” (Maloney, Lapinski, Witte, 2011: p. 207).
Environmental discourse is riddled with claims to threats, characterized by dangerous or harmful things that exist in the environment whether we know it or not (Witte, Cameron, McKeon & Berkowitz, 1996). According to EPPM, it is not the actual threat, but people’s perception of the threat that impels them to act (Witte, 1992). Threat is composed of two distinct components: perceived severity (one’s belief about the threat’s significance or enormity) and perceived susceptibility (one’s belief about the chance of experiencing the threat) (Witte et al, 1996). Based on the EPPM framework, perceived threat is capable of inciting action insofar as the message is capable of directly affecting threat perceptions and, to be successful, a fear appeal needs to convince the recipient that the likelihood of severe consequences cannot be ignored if they are going to be able to prevent that threat. Figure 6 presents a diagram that Witte (1992) developed in order to visualize potential response behavior.
According to Figure 6, the fear appeal follows a relatively complex process involving various uncertainties. The EPPM framework describes response tendencies; it does not attribute categories of responses in a rigid way. An appropriate threat level coupled with sound secondary components of threat, it is possible that an adequate or desired response can be achieved. Fear appeal messages need to be constructed properly, and, much like a logical syllogism, clear and precise statements are at the heart of an effective message. This essay contends that satirical films (e.g. 2012 (2009)) that take fear appeals lightly may do more harm than actually presenting a sound argument for ecological preservation.
Based on public health research, Witte et al (1996) maintained the effectiveness of a fear appeal message on the grounds of its efficacy. Efficacy means “…the effectiveness, feasibility and ease with which a recommended response impedes or averts a threat” (Witte et al., 1996: 320). Without a recommended action, the threat will have no bearing and effect. Additionally, the response recommendation needs to be within the realm of an individual’s capacity to follow through. According to the EPPM framework, an action-response reaction depends on the message’s ability to increase the perceptions of a threat whereas the actionable response depends on the magnitude of perceived efficacy to deter a threat (Maloney, Lapinski, Witte, 2011). Consequently, the goal of any perceived threat is to encourage and instill a level of confidence that motivates people to engage in the recommended action, and that the recommended behavior is perceived as enough and also effective to avoid the threat. Within perceived efficacy, there are three additional response reactions: 1) non-response, 2) danger control and 3) fear control.
When people are exposed to a message, they begin, almost immediately, to decide whether or not the perceived threat is sufficient or severe enough, and if the likelihood of the threat is great enough to engage in behavioral responses to avert the threat. A minimal/low perceived threat suggests that a person does not experience fear and they will not act to prevent the threat leading to a non-response reaction. On the other hand, higher perceived threat will stimulate an adequate response. If people have enough efficacies to prevent a threat, they will alleviate their fear by adopting danger control responses. If people’s efficacy evaluations result in a reduced self-perception that they cannot avert the threat, they will engage in fear control responses: “coping responses that diminish fear, such as defensive avoidance, denial, and reactance (including issue/message derogation and perceived manipulative intent)” (Witte et al., 1996: 320).
Along the continuum of persuasion tactics, fear is an emotional appeal. Environmental documentaries may or may not use pathos; however, a great deal of documentaries use logical appeal to try and reason with the recipient. This essay argues that the dire environmental circumstances prevent a subtle persuasion appeal and, rather, demands immediate attitudinal changes. The following bar graph (Figure 7) reveals the results of keywords (“Environment”, “Climate Change”, “Ecology”, “Environmental Issue”) taken from the International Movie Database (IMDB) which have provided a set of 630 films based on their year of release, duplicates removed, tallied accordingly and displayed visually. By no means is this an exhaustive representation of all the ecological documentaries in the IMDB, but a visual representation enough to provide a reasonable and accurate depiction of an eco-documentary practice mimicking current climate change graph provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Figure 8). These diagrams below reveal a growing interest and urgency in the environmental movement to address greater global uncertainties.
There is a great gap between conventional pro-environmental documentaries and non-conventional forms that this essay has suggested lies within the holistic and individualistic ethical positions. Comparatively, documentaries such as Blackfish (2013), The Cove (2009), and Whaledreamers (2006) follow an individualistic ethic versus The 11th Hour (2007), Age of Stupid (2009) and The Inconvenient Truth (2006) are holistic in nature. Without the flexibility offered to individualists, documentaries following a holistic ethic seek greater objectivity and desire to conform to a conventional technique—because of their detachment, this essay argues that they use fear appeals coupled with logical arguments to strengthen their position. On the other hand, individualists use an informal, non-systematic approach, which may not likely have the same devotion to convention and that they may or may not use fear appeals to convey their message; however, individualists may use a highly personal and reflective tone, an empathetic position in order to convince the audience. An analysis of the following three films: The 11th Hour (2007) Age of Stupid (2009), and The Cove (2009) will provide examples for these holistic and individualistic ethical positions and the way in which they use fear appeals, and that, these positions manifest in different ways. The essential idea is to provide a way to assess environmental documentaries categorically.
Environmental discourse in cinema is rife with analysis about Al Gore’s seminal documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and, while Gore’s film is inspiring, it will not provide valuable analysis because it is already quite saturated. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) is often used to compare with other eco-documentaries in terms of style, narrative quality, cinematography, etc; however, it warrants little contributive value when used to compare with films made within unique circumstances and purposes, and, such crude comparisons may circumvent analytical output of the three film analysed below: The 11th Hour (2007) Age of Stupid (2009), and The Cove (2009) in this order. Each film will be analysed respective to their ethical orientation, narrative and story quality, filmically and the way in which they have used fear appeals to deliver their messages. Throughout, this analysis will provide a framework for determining an environmental documentary’s effectiveness and, hopefully, reveal their errors in persuasion.
The 11th Hour (2007) – A Traditional Documentary Expression
The 11th Hour (“Hour”) (2007), released shortly after An Inconvenient Truth (2006), was directed by Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen and co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. The intent Hour is to encourage greater environmental awareness and convince the audience to relinquish their complacent attitudes in order to become active participants in environmental conservation. Some critics have argued that Hour is merely a reiteration of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), except without a personal narrative and more scientific evidence. Al Gore undoubtedly influenced DiCaprio, who, together, were in cooperation fighting a united front demanding environmentally conscious behavior. DiCaprio has always been a hardcore environmentalist and philanthropist, and has amassed tremendous credibility and respect by other environmentalists. For example: DiCaprio donated one million dollars to the Wildlife Conservation Society; he lives environmentally friendly (solar panels, tesla-powered vehicle); he has donated one million to the Haiti relief fund; donated one million to the Elephant Crisis Fund; donated three million to Oceana to protect ocean wildlife, etc… (LeonardoDiCaprio.com, 2014). As the narrator of Hour, his credibility is not in question; however, to the average lay-man, his eco-activism may or may not be self-evident. Before the analytical framework is applied, a brief overview of The 11th Hour is necessary.
Several reviews have dubbed Hour as a “talking heads” documentary, arguing that it consisted primarily of interviews, dialogue and discussions interspersed with scenic environmental stock footage. Close to fifty experts were brought together, including the infamous Mikhail Gorbachev (former leader of the Soviet Communist Party) and the world-renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. They revealed intricacies of the ecological problems humans face. All of these scientists took advantage of the opportunity to discuss the significance of their scientific findings, amounting to a colossal 90 minute documentary consisting largely of theory, trivia and contestable claims. The idea of ancient sunlight is one of the most intriguing observations that represent a significant aspect of Hour. The theory of ancient sunlight argues that humans have always been creatures dependent on sunlight as the guiding agent for yielding crops, finding adequate shelter, and overall survival; in addition, all plants store sunlight and humans have always lived on earth’s natural resources (the harvesters of energy)—sadly, humans have set ablaze millions of years of stored energy. Prominent physicist Stephen Hawking described the consequences of man’s uninterrupted ecological as an almost chilling prophecy:
One of the most serious consequences of our actions is global warming brought about by rising levels of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. The danger is that the temperature increase might become self-sustaining, if it has not done so already. Drought and deforestation are reducing the amount of carbon dioxide recycled into the atmosphere and the warming of the seas may trigger the release of large quantities of CO2 trapped on the ocean floor. ln addition, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets will reduce the amount of solar energy reflected back into space and so increase the temperature further. We don’t know where the global warming would stop, but the worst-case scenario is that Earth would become like its sister planet, Venus with a temperature of 250 centigrade and raining sulfuric acid. The human race could not survive in those conditions. (Stephen Hawking, The 11th Hour).
Statements like these, with a highly linear scientifically constructed logic, are at the heart of Hour. The film is constructed following one logical statement to the next, arguing in a rational systematic way amplified by frightening stock footage. 70 minutes of the 90 minute documentary was dedicated to establishing familiar ground and the importance of an eco-friendly world—only 20 minutes were spent discussing alternative solutions. Connors remarked that she wanted a more extensive environmental documentary covering a variety of topics rather than just climate change. Hour is a thesis building upon Connor’s fear of human extinction. For Connor, time is running out and humankind has a dire fate, “there are tipping points,” she says, “The scary thing for me was discovering how quickly something can collapse and finding out that we’ve come very close to that tipping point and what that means for humanity” (Grady, 2007). To Connor, humanity has already surpassed the tipping point and is confronted with the 11th hour, suggesting that the time for speculation and doubt is over and a renewed invigoration and drive to save the Earth is the only solution. The documentary tirelessly describes such scenarios precisely, that much of what has happened now is irreparable (e.g. ozone depletion, extinction of animal and plant species, etc…). The documentary is an attempt to summarize many environmental problems such as: climate change, deforestation, mass extinction, overconsumption, and total global disharmony; consequently, the target audience becomes those with agency, or individuals within political or international organisations capable of adopting more rigorous policies to protect the environment. Put it simply, the average layman is at a loss to prevent many of these highly interconnected global problems. Hour is a holistic, ethically grounded film, exposing the wider consequences of humankind’s detrimental behavior.
Hour provides a mere 20 minutes to explain why a change in perspective is required above all else. Humanity is essentially doomed and the 11th hour is before us. The ultimate solution is a completely dramatic change in lifestyle, by reverting to eco-friendly living conditions to mimic nature’s perfect energy-storing, waste management creation: a tree. According to the 11th Hour, everyone needs to construct their home in a fully eco-friendly way: install solar panels on a house that recycles stored energy, energy efficient and ecologically stable.
11th Hour and Fear
Hour is certainly thorough, but its informative value is primarily why it was made, not to inspire or encourage change. Fear was the primary instrument that Connor used to elucidate her argument, the idea was clear: to shock the viewer. With an already saturated level of eco-awareness, any more awareness to argue for proactive environmental change is counterproductive. Connor’s poor application of the fear appeal will likely avert spectators rather than encourage them. According to the EPPM model a strategic fear appeal has a symmetric balance between threat and efficacy appraisals. This film is primarily focused on a threat appraisal, having satisfied an inordinate concentration of perceived severity (beliefs concerning the magnitude of threat) and perceived susceptibility (likelihood of experiencing the threat). Climate change concerns have heavily penetrated the public domain and a heavy reiteration of perceived threat that may not have been necessary.
Efficacy appraisals are a significant component of a successful fear appeal and an explanation of how the recipient can act is one of the most challenging aspects of a fear appeal. Most importantly, is it possible for the recipient to make those necessary changes? Are those changes realistic? Hour, with its holistic ethic, has not provided an effective means for a recipient to become encouraged about reinforcing change and adopting an ecologically friendly worldview. Hour is lead by a strong sense of idealism, believing in a theoretical utopia of a world untainted by mass consumerism and ecological destruction:
Instead of being powered by fossil fuels, it’s powered by renewable energy. Instead of having an automobile-centered, transportation system, it will have a much more diversified transport system. Instead of a throwaway economy it will be a reused economy, where everything is reused. (The 11th Hour, 01:08:26,224 – 01:08:41,057).
Using references to ancient sunlight, biomimicry (constructing a house like a tree, sustainable living), alternative fuel sources (biofuel, hybrid vehicles), and reverting back to more natural means of consumption with respect to the ecosystem, humankind may stand a chance of surviving the 11th Hour. An eco-friendly living would require the recipient of this message to relinquish many dependencies in favor of feeling less guilty about their complicity in environmental destruction. Furthermore, Hour suggests that individuals can “vote” on a daily basis to choose alternative environmental products and services; however, Hour spends only a brief moment describing these alternatives. In a sense, Hour has an ideological position referred to as deep ecology, arguing that humans are merely an infectious agent damaging the biosphere, environment, and all forms of life. At this critical stage, humans need to understand their role in the environment and experience themselves as a part of the larger whole. In terms of efficacy, a perspective-change is one of the most important aspects leading to longer-lasting change; however, it is difficult to ascertain the affect idealisms and ideological positions will have on recipients; in addition, this does not comply to tactical physical alternatives and changes needed for an effective efficacy appeal. Put it simply, it is not a feasible solution for recipients to buy biofuel, hybrid vehicles, create a fully sustainable living, and use sunlight for all their needs; such a drastic change would require tremendous financial expenditure and ongoing maintenance. As stated earlier, Hour was primarily created to serve as a means to communicate with environmental agencies and governments to enact pro-environmental policies and to consider a sustainable future.
Age of Stupid (2009) – A Docudrama
Age of Stupid (2009) (“Age”) directed by Franny Armstrong is an expression of highly active groups demanding ecological change. Age is an atypical form of documentary genre, unlike Hour, it is not a “talking heads” documentary. Along the continuum of documentary genres, Age is considered a docudrama, employing a combination of fictional and traditional documentary narratives (see page 6 for details). Age is set after the 11th hour has ended for the last time and has become impossible to affect environmental change; in a way, Age depicts an Earth Stephen Hawking prophesized in Hour. Taking advantage of docudrama, Age experiments with futuristic scenes of an apocalyptic doomed Earth and that it appears only one man is left to preserve the legacy of humans, the archivist. Using a digital monitor, the archivist touches the screen and reminisces the Age of Stupid, man’s pinnacle opportunity for lasting environmental change hindered only by his self-interested stupidity.
Age begins with a montage of sequences depicting total environmental destruction: London is flooded; Las Vegas consumed and covered by the desert, Amazon rainforest is set ablaze, the glaciers have all melted on the Alps, and India has been ravaged by nuclear fallout. The narrator (Pete Postlethwaite), the archivist, enters a facility with records to all of man’s achievements and their respective stories. Taking a seat at a console, the archivist touches a screen to activate the monitor. His touch is also an attempt to activate a passive audience, speaking directly to the audience beginning with a central rhetorical question: “why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?” The answer remains ambiguous throughout the docudrama. Unlike Hour, Age attempts to bind theory, science, and story using six narratives from around the world. The interconnectedness of each story is the most prominent implication Armstrong makes: “An oil geologist could save one hundred people from Hurricane Katrina without acknowledging that his own work produced carbon emissions that caused the extreme weather” (Sluis, 2009). Instead of isolating the source of the problem, Age insists that searching for a definitive cause is futile and narrow-minded—the answer lies in the interconnectedness of seemingly unrelated stories that result in a chain reaction. The scale of this interconnectedness is the challenge for man, the source of man’s stupidity. Age is a bleak and dark on purpose, recognizing these grave circumstances can be alleviated if man realized that climate change is a global initiative.
At the heart of these six stories lies a central theme of contradiction: Piers Guy, a windfarm developer, is prevented by the community from installing windmills for alternative energy because it ruins the landscape; Jeh Wadia, the Indian entrepreneur without regard to the environmental consequences of his business, proceeds his dream of developing the cheapest airline in India to get millions of Indians flying; Alvin Du Verney is helping the Shell oil corporation find sources of oil in New Orleans, even though their activities may have had something to do with Hurricane Katrina (as Age implies); Layefia Malemi, a Nigerian native who must fix the oil-drenched waters for four years before she can raise enough funds to fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor (the Shell corporation is extracting oil and nothing can be done to prevent water contamination in Nigeria); Jamila Bayyoud, an Iraqi refugee displaced permanently during the 2003 US-led invasion for the pursuit of new sources of oil; Fernand Pareau, a French mountain guide witnesses the receding glaciers. Age focuses on those who have been affected by the aggressive abuse of the environment from the most tragic story (Bayyoud) to the blatant stupidity of a community in England (Guy). Age transitions from story to story with a brief interjection from the archivist to contextualize the global pandemic. By drawing the spectator closer to the tragedy, Armstrong seeks an appeal beyond fear but also to extract compassion from the audience to Bayyoub and Malemi, those innocents being punished on an daily basis forced to survive in inhumane conditions.
Age of Stupid (2009) and Fear
Armstrong uses fear in a more controlled way, but ineffectively. Although fear was not the primary appeal Armstrong used, every transition to the archivist was an intentional strategy designed to invoke for a future that is impossible to change. Every story has an underlying trace that invokes fear; for example, the fear that if the Indian entrepreneur Wadia succeeds, it will mean greater atmospheric and ozone layer depletion. Furthermore, if an invasion could be led so easily for the purposes of finding a new source for oil, how many Bayyouds will exist? In an attempt to draw the spectator closer, the lingering fear of Malemi (a sympathetic ambitious individual) dying from the oil-infested waters of Nigeria is chilling—how many Nigerians died because of water contamination and did the Shell corporation have something to do with it? Whether this lingering dread may or may not be effective remains uncertain, but it is not a clear statement of fear designed to elicit an efficacy response.
Armstrong stated, “only people obsessed with climate change could understand all our subtle links” (Sluis, 2009). Upon closer inspection, all of these subtle links lead to fossil fuel dependency and the impact the oil industry has had around the world. These subtle links are non-descriptive and too indirect. While much of the messages in Age may appear implicit, Age is attempting to invoke attitudinal/behavioral responses using fear combined with a more compassionate approach. According to the EPPM model, two distinct components of threat must be fulfilled: perceived severity and perceived susceptibility (see page 19). Due to the inordinate subtleties, it is unclear whether any messages fulfill basic parameters for establishing fear appeals. Concerning images in the beginning of the docudrama (the destroyed Earth), perceived severity is adequately established—when recipients see apocalyptic images, they may believe in the severity of the emerging threat; however, the stories of distant people may not increase perceived susceptibility: what are the odds that a north American citizen would experience similar conditions as Malemi? In order for perceived susceptibility to effectively influence recipients, the message must be explicitly targeted at the recipient. In other words, fear needs to be personalized (Geller, 2007). Unfortunately, the fear appeals used in Age are secondary, meaning that Armstrong sought to build an understanding for those being affected by environmental degradation.
Although Age was thoughtful, its message is far too grim to instill any form of efficacy in spectators. This docudrama is incomplete, leaving very little room for commentary concerning a critical component of a fear appeal – efficacy (see page 20-21). Age is not intended to be motivational, establishing efficacy was not Armstrong’s primary objective. All six stories create a world of powerless individuals who are unable to overcome their struggles, most notably Piers Guy who is no longer permitted to install windmills on his property—his fight appears impossible to win. The archivist fails to narrate the story with a positive reflection. The spectator merely sits back and remains passive as he struggles with the rhetorical question posited by the archivist in the beginning: “Why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?” As the story proceeds towards its end, the audience answers: “We never had a chance to save the Earth.” Armstrong establishes no lasting efficacy, or any feasible means of averting the climate change threat. Without an adequately established perceived self-efficacy and perceived response efficacy, Age will likely elicit maladaptive coping responses such as denial and avoidance, viewers may even dismiss the message and consider it invalid.
Age is a promising docudrama with a potential to intrigue spectators, but its use of the fear appeal and its passive position may elicit maladaptive responses. This documentary does not perform effectively against critics, or those that it would like to persuade. Instead, the target audience is likely those already heavily convinced about climate change, since Age does not attempt to create an efficacy component—those who are already aware of the significance and danger of climate change do not require any motivation to act.
The Cove (2009) – An Activist Documentary
The Cove (“Cove”) (2009), directed by former National Geographic photographer and the founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society Louis Psihoyos, is a powerful and extremely effective documentary synthesizing elements more than fear. This documentary was chosen for analysis to juxtapose the complications of the fear appeal in the previous aforementioned documentaries, and to provide an alternative persuasion strategy needed to influence the audience. Unlike the holistic perspectives in Age and Hour, Cove is a biocentric film. In addition, Age and Hour are human-centered, meaning that the primary concerns lie within human understanding of climate change and its consequences. Page 14 describes the complex radical environmentalism, particularly the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and, in some ways, the Oceanic Preservation Society has many characteristics that resemble the ELF. Cove is an activist documentary, applying techniques of investigative journalism appearing in direct contention with established documentary practice. Activists are guided by a powerful compelling urge to fulfill their overall mission, and while DiCaprio and Armstrong are considered activists, Psihoyos and O’Barry fall within an atypical designation: extreme activism bordering on ecoterrorism. Cove, and other activist documentaries like Whaledreamers (2006) and Arid Lands (2007), use other means of persuasion and attempt to draw compassion from the audience in a non-human centered way—through a projection and personification of animals. Cove wants viewers to experience the perspective of a caged intelligent, and sentient being as a reminder of captivity and its unjust consequences. Cove is a deeply motivational documentary with an urgent expression linking the suffering of both man (O’Barry) and animal (dolphin).
In a virtually unknown lagoon in Japan lies one of the most disturbing secrets. Ric O’Barry, known for having captured and trained five dolphins for the hit television series Flipper (1964-1967) , embarks on a mission of redemption to ensure the safety of every captive dolphin he could find. With the help of Psihoyos, highly advanced cameras, two world-class freedivers, O’Barry journeys to the heart of the “kill zone”. Cove reminds the audience about the significance of their mission and binds them with O’Barry to disclose the unjust slaughter of dolphins. O’Barry must maintain a low profile, although his very presence alerts Taiji authorities. Throughout the documentary, Psihoyos is aware that the consequences of their mission, if apprehended by Taiji authorities, will mean a year in prison. To ensure the success of their mission, Psihoyos enlists Industrial Light and Magic to create camouflaged foliage to protect their cameras from being detected, this way Psihoyos’s team can strategically place their cameras in areas surrounding the “kill zone”. Psihoyos is seen as an ecowarrior, intent to uncover the truth without any regard of their consequences; however, the team is cautious of all the cameras surrounding the kill zone waiting to capture any actionable offense. In a sense, this is an undercover operation planned with the help of a former avionics engineer of the Canadian Air Force.
A parallel story of locals taking an initiative shows teachers refusing to feed children mislabelled dolphin meat. When the most “beautiful” dolphins are captured in the lagoon, they are shipped to recreational parks (i.e. SeaWorld) and those which cannot be shipped away are brutally slaughtered (young or aged dolphines are indiscriminantely slaughtered) and the their meat is sold as mislabelled whale meat (because it is more profitable). Most disturbing, Psihoyos stated, is that the dolphin meat contains lethal concentrations of mercury; the Japanese people are being subjected to uncontrolled doses enough to cause mercury poisoning and death, as well as generational genetic deformities. Cove seeks to appeal to both local residents in Japan, arguing the senselessness of these brutal killings when it does not serve Japanese interests anyway—random people are asked on the street if they even know about the slaughter in Taiji and most respond in shock, if not denial. Cove is an attempt to influence public policy as well as attract international recognition and attention to these inhumane practises.
Cove uses swift transitions to capture an action-packed spy thriller deploying various imaging and filming techniques designed for suspense. Psihoyos uses a combination of personal narratives (the divers, O’Barry, and himself) to encourage familiarity and understanding. Cove is basically a documentary that captures the process by which the team acquired shocking footage and then to play it in public viewing. Cove is not a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary and biases in the director’s perspective is self-evident, unmasked and in plain sight. Psihoyos does not distinguish between the camera and himself, reflecting on the viability of the camera’s ability to capture unquestionable truth. The audience is in effect watching a camera documenting the evidence, under the guiding principle that “seeing is believing”. Psihoyos is convinced that capturing the massacre will be a significant step towards ratifying a strong delegation against Japan’s shameless slaughter. Instead of using stock footage, Psihoyos uses his own captured content interspersed with newly captured footage during the filming—in a sense, Psihoyos remains deliberately disconnected from traditional techniques of adopting voice over narratives and stock footage (hallmark characteristics of traditional documentaries). Psihoyos is willing to sacrifice every single fundamental characteristic that defines documentary in order to express the urgency of his message. When the stakes are high, formalities need to be undercut otherwise it downplays the significance of the message. While fear is not the means at which Cove shaped its messages, the ideas behind Cove follow closely with an ecoterrorist perspective and the hope of “leading by example”—The Cove is the example to mimic behaviors and to aspire towards it, not through fear, as a guiding persuasive strategy.
The Cove (2009) and Ecoterrorism
It is not in the intent of this essay to declare that Psihoyos is an ecoterrorist, rather, explain the tendencies mimicing the characteristics of an ecoterrorist cell. Applying the definition and analysis outlined in pages 15 to 18, Psihoyos and his team can be described within the limits of a cell unit deploying questionable tactics in order to acquire information that would jeopardise daily operations in the kill zone. Each cell has its own leader, but their leadership is not based on a hierarchical structure: each member contributes their talents and skills necessary to fulfill their mission. Their decentralized nature permits the team to move quickly and swiftly through the kill zone terrain, furthermore, they are capable of improvising through the thicket of uncertainty. The first statement in the documentary mimics the attempt of every ecoterrorist cell: “I do want to say that we try to do the story legally” (The Cove, 2009: 00:57 – 01:01). Immediately, Cove transitions to Ric O’Barry as he makes his “getaway”, hiding behind mask to prevent identification by Taiji authorities. O’Barry says, “I’ve got to hunch over and change my shape so they think I’m just old Japanese guy” (The Cove, 2009: 03:22 – 03:27). O’Barry describes the intense paranoia as the shaky camera and swift transitions between scenes already establish the mood: the fear that O’Barry would be caught and prosecuted.
The individual in a cell feels a profound isolation, separating their involvement with others in distinct ways. O’Barry has been arrested countless times struggling with authorities in his pursuit to save every dolphin he could find: “If there’s a dolphin in trouble, anywhere in the world, my phone will ring” (O’Barry, The Cove (2009): 07:17 – 07:23). O’Barry is not concerned about climate change as a whole, but of a single entity in the biosphere. Over time, as his relationship with the dolphins grew, O’Barry recognized an intrinsic significance in dolphin intelligence: “When you become conscious of this nonhuman intelligence, you realize after a while they don’t really belong in captivity,” says O’Barry (The Cove, 2009: 11:30 – 11:37). Ecoterrorists have a strong unbridled bond with animals and the general biosphere, however, those engaged in the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front have personal attachments that are deeply rooted often as a consequence of personal tragedies expeirenced with the animal. For example, O’Barry reminisces a deep tragedy he experienced when training the dolphins for Flipper:
The thing that turned me around was the death of Flipper, of Cathy. She was really depressed. I could feel it. I could see it. And she committed suicide in my arms. That’s a very strong word, suicide. But you have to understand, dolphins and other whales are not automatic air breathers, like we are. Every breath they take is a conscious effort and so they can end their life whenever life becomes too unbearable by not taking the next breath. And it’s in that context I use the word suicide. She did that. She swam into my arms and looked me right in the eye and…took a breath and didn’t take another one. I just let her go, and she sank straight down on her belly to the bottom of the tank. The next day, I was in the Bimini jail for trying to free a dolphin at the Lerner Marine Laboratory. (The Cove, 2009: 16:50 – 17:59)
O’Barry’s painful guilt transcends beyond the screen as he attempts to connect with the audience at a personal level, in order to help the audience visualise the torture of Taiji. When O’Barry describes the deception of the dolphin smile, he begins to personify their torture, a means of connecting with the audience at a familiar level. The individualistic unit is motivated by separate, but merging goals and the methods that a single unit will take is unpredictable—an ecoterrorist makes use of every available option. The divers, after having witnessed the unjust slaughter before their very eyes, moved swiftly to coordinate their efforts with Psihoyos to place cameras underwater. Psihoyos’s team was not in cooperation with any other agency, or other cell, in order to realise the completion of their mission.
Ecoterrorists, like O’Barry, find that the holistic approach and the implicit trust placed in institutions and organisations as detrimental. Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace, explains that the “International Whaling Commission is the only international body dealing with whales that’s officially recognized by the United Nations. It’s basically a toothless organization, but it is the only organization that does exist” (The Cove, 2009: 22:05 – 22:16). Ecoterrorists struggle to find meaning and purpose in organisations like the International Whaling Commission (IWC) when they have little to no influence to show. In essence, O’Barry and Psihoyos run their mission contrary to the observations of the IWC. O’Barry is apprehended by security guards when he attaches a mobile monitor to present Japan’s heinous crimes in front of the IWC. In the following sequence, O’Barry with his mobile monitor stands in the center of a busy intersection and begins to broadcast to the Japanese people the bloody scenes Psihoyos and his team recorded in the kill zone. With the time lapsed sequence, O’Barry is seen isolated despite the countless individuals surrounding him—a feeling reminiscent in members of ecoterrorist cells.
Activist documentaries use a personal approach more engaged into the conflict and the hopeless plight of their situation becomes clear. The goal is to inspire and motivate others in order to take action against what appears to be an obvious crime against the ecology. In this way, Cove seeks to draw sympathy in the audience and to align their intrigue to dolphins with O’Barry. In a sense, when the audience thinks about dolphins, they will be forever reminded of O’Barry and The Cove. The film has a disturbing conclusion, a tragedy designed to elicit a strong repulsion and anger needed to put pressure on Japan and the IWC to prevent ongoing atrocities.
Although Cove does not use fear appeals in the way that 11th Hour and Age of Stupid, the direction of persuasion is similar: a pathos emotionally-driven persuasion strategy. With growing complications and the uncertainty of a fear appeal, Cove is an alternative expression designed to provoke strong emotional reactions not necessarily bound to fear.
This essay was an attempt to describe the complications of the documentary genre, by expounding on the principles of documentary theory in the broader sense and delimiting it within three subcategories: traditional documentaries (The 11th Hour), docudramas (Age of Stupid) and activist documentaries (The Cove). Each documentary genre has its own motivations, but the likelihood of traditional documentaries as well as docudramas to use fear appeals is much greater than activist documentaries. Fear appeals are an emotionally-driven persuasion strategy that are designed to provoke action through a synthesis of threat and efficacy appraisals. To properly analyse the typology of an environmental film, it is necessary to begin decoding the ethical positions, whether it is holistic or individualistic provides a distinct possibility of analysing the director’s motivations. Additionally, environmental documentaries may or may not use fear appeals, especially those which do not subscribe to a holistic ethic (The Cove). The Cove is the evolution of ecocinema, using a strong persuasive strategy designed to influence the individual to take action and to situate a bond between the individual and the entity in question. This essay attempted to chart a framework for understanding and analysing environmental films with the hope of effectively understanding the origins, the motivations, and the results of a pro-environmental message.
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