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Too Bad No Oscars for Raising Public Awareness

Back in August, the following post ran about the very successful media efforts being taken to call attention to the film, The Cove, last night’s Oscar winner for best documentary about the senseless slaughter of dolphins in a cove located off the coast of Japan.  As noted in the post, like the film itself, the making of it and the subsequent promotion, provided an opportunity to raise the public’s knowledge of this senseless — but preventable — tragedy. The post is reprinted again as a reminder of the power of film — especially when tied to a well-planned communications effort — to get people to act. Perhaps the film’s real test, buoyed by the Oscar win, is yet to come. Set to open shortly for the first time in Japan, where it has yet to be seen by the public, the filmmakers have high hopes. Former dolphin trainer, turned activist, Ric O’Barry, who is featured in The Cove, predicts that “When the film is seen in Japan, it will shut ‘the cove’ down permanently.”

Believing Without Seeing (Originally Published Aug. 2, 2009)

Most people will agree that film can be a powerful medium for delivering powerful messages, especially for issues or causes to which you want to draw a lot of attention and spark action.

But sometimes the release of a film and the back story of the production can be just as powerful.

I experienced a fresh reminder of that lesson the other day listening to a podcast of NPR’s Fresh Air, which was devoted to a discussion about a new documentary, The Cove. The film, which is now in theaters, exposes in painful and sometimes graphic detail the merciless capture (for aquariums) and brutal slaughter (for food) of thousands of dolphins each year by fisherman who work the waters off Taiji, a village on the rural coast of Japan.  While the story about dolphin abuse is shocking enough, and, up until now, mostly unknown, the life-threatening risks the producers and crew took to make this film are just as attention grabbing.

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Even without seeing the movie (other than the trailer posted above), I heard and visualized  enough to make me a believer and want to support efforts to stop this senseless tragedy.

Credit goes to the director Louie Psihoyos and former dolphin trainer, turned activist, Ric O’Barry, who is featured in the film, for how effectively they used the interview — and a few choice sound clips — to do exactly what their movie itself is supposed to do: get my attention, send me to the film’s website so I can learn more about this issue, and provide a number of ways to get involved, including writing letters to U.S. and world leaders and donating money. (Score one point for the filmmaker and the people responsible for the promotion.)

Based on what I heard and the images my mind conjured listening to the broadcast, I have no doubt the film will make a difference, and once again prove the power of the medium to move people to action.

Obviously this is but one media interview based on the film, and I’m sure there have and will be others.  So, too, are more stories and additional coverage likely if the film scores well with audiences.  Still it shows how, when done well, a story about the film can be as powerful as the film itself and produce the same response as actually seeing it.  Put another way, just by talking up the film in the right places, the documentary can have impact even before it hits the screen. (Score two, for the filmmaker and the people responsible for the promotion.)

Ironically, in a review of the film that precedes the interview, commentator David Edelstein offers some thoughts about what makes for a successful film of this kind:

You measure an activist documentary in two ways: first, whether it evokes a world, whether it brings the issues to burning life instead of giving you just talking heads. Second is whether it whips you up to join the fight — or at least send a righteous e-mail. Director Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove is gangbusters propaganda on both counts.

I’d only add that for a film to achieve those big goals, it’s key to take advantage of every opportunity before, during, and after the film’s release to talk up both the subject and the cause, and give people opportunities to get involved, and even before they get to the theater. That way, the film scores on multiple levels, like this is likely to do.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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