IS IT JUST my impression, or has there been a spate of nature and environment-related document­aries recently?

Last year alone brought us The Age of Stupid, Home, Earth 2100, The Cove and Food, Inc., to name a few. And let’s not forget such recent efforts as An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour, Planet Earth, March of the Penguins, Everything’s Cool, Grizzly Man, The End of Suburbia and King Corn. Several of these were nominated for Oscars, some were unjustly overlooked, and three won Best Documentary Feature. Quantity and awards may be impressive, but what are these films telling us?

This year’s Oscar-doc winner was The Cove, directed by renowned photographer Louie Psihoyos. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that it’s about the annual roundup and slaughter of tens of thousands of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Some are taken into captivity by dolphin trainers, while those not desirable for entertainment are killed for their meat. The filmmaker’s objective was to get the annual “harvest” on film and tell the world about this senseless ritual. The effort was inspired by former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry’s quest to stop the capture, confinement and slaughter of dolphins. O’Barry pioneered the training of dolphins and created the 1960’s TV series Flipper. But in 1970, he had a change of heart, and mind.

There are many great things about The Cove. First, the creators framed it as an adventure film, with much of the story revolving around the challenge of overcoming the secrecy and security surrounding the slaughter. This was a brilliant decision because it makes the film far more engaging, and builds on the compelling narrative that features heroic efforts taken to save animals. Secondly, the film tells O’Barry’s personal story, including his fight with the multibillion- dollar dolphin entertainment industry, and his efforts to get the International Whaling Commission to care about what’s going on in Japan – indeed, to care about dolphins at all.

The film serves up a great case study of how images of nature in popular culture – in this case, Flipper – can have a huge effect on how people treat those aspects of the natural world. Many people love dolphins and want to get close to them, even swim with them. But the industry that capitalizes on this impulse has led to unspeakable suffering and senseless killing. Strangely, dolphin trainers seem able to dissociate themselves from the violence wrought by this lucrative trade in dolphin performers. Furthermore, as the film points out, dolphin meat is so contaminated with mercury that serving it to people makes no sense.

Contrast The Cove with 2002’s Winged Migration, another Oscar-nominated, animal-centered film, and we get a very different story. Directed by Jacques Perrin, Winged Migration features spectacular up-close and airborne footage of migrating birds from numerous parts of the world. It purports to marvel at the wonders of migration and claims respect for the birds. Watching the incredible footage, one can’t help but wonder how the filmmakers managed to get so close. Well, all is revealed on the DVD’s special feature, The Making of Winged Migration.

The big deception is that most of the birds in the film were captive-bred, imprinted on human handlers, and trained to follow those handlers wherever they went, including in ultra-light aircraft. Now, animal actors are nothing new to the wildlife film business, but this kind of premeditated exploitation of these birds’ lives seems exceptionally bizarre. The arrogance and ignorance of the Winged Migration filmmakers is on par with that of the dolphin hunters and trainers.

Thank goodness for activist film-makers such as Psihoyos and O’Barry, who know how to craft a message and tell stories that will help build compassion and care for our fellow creatures, rather than simply treating them as spectacular entertainment at any cost.

Mark Meisner teaches environmental studies at SUNY-ESF. He directs the Environmental Communication Network, and blogs about environmental communication and culture at



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