By Corey Birkhofer
Oceans, France / Switzerland / Spain, 2009
Directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud
Okay, I’m going to admit it: I absolutely love nature documentaries. March of the Penguins (2005) and the BBC’s Earth (2007) are two that come immediately to mind as nature pictures that have stayed with me since watching them. The latter, a brilliant work narrated by James Earl Jones, was interestingly acquired for U.S. release by none other than Disney’s new-kid-on-the-block independent nature documentary group, DisneyNature. Being as moved as I was by Earth, when I found out DisneyNature had put together their own documentary, I was ecstatic to hear it’d be getting a Japanese release so I could see it over here.
With its ambitious attempt to document the massive bodies of water that cover three-fourths of our planet, Oceans is a visual and auditory masterpiece put together by French directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud. On a visual level, I have to be honest and state that I have never been moved to “ooh” and “aah” more than I was when watching Oceans. And yet, as beautifully shot, edited and scored as the film may be, what didn’t I get about it?
I’ll sum it up in one word for you: robots.
Robots, you say? Yeah, I’d be thinking the same thing, too. But I wasn’t thinking this when I went in to enjoy what I thought would be a documentary about that big bowl of water out there and all of its amazing inhabitants. Immersed completely in the visual and auditory experience of the film, I didn’t learn until after I got home later that night that the scenes in the film showing cruelty toward sharks, sea turtles, whales and other sea creatures were actually all just done using robots! Yep, friggin’ robots.
Now you might be asking yourself like I did, why would the creators of this project want to spend thousands of dollars on animatronic sea animals as a way to portray the cold reality of mass net fishing and certain fishery industries’ practices? Perhaps the scene that sticks most with me was one showing the de-finning and de-tailing of a mid-sized shark, with the fisherman then coldly discarding the still living shark back into the water as the camera follows the poor creature to its grave at the sea floor, blood pouring from its gills. It’s images like this that would make just about anyone want to join Green Peace or Sea Shepherd and blow up all the fishery industries of the world. And yet, that’s where I have to draw the line and say that a documentary is a documentary only when it is telling the unedited truth.
So what did the filmmakers have to say for themselves? Reading Japan’s Asahi newspaper and its interview with both directors, when asked why they chose to use robots in the cruelty towards sea animal scenes in their film, the two state that from one living creature to another, they could never sit back and document such a grotesque incident as it’s happening. Granted, I share the same feelings and would also be unable to sit passively on the sidelines, but that doesn’t mean I’d use robots to re-enact such a horrific scene in my so-called documentary just to get my audiences fired up and angry about cruelty towards sea animals. In fact, I wouldn’t have put a scene using robots in my documentary at all if I ever wanted my work to be considered a vehicle of truth.
It’s absolutely fine for someone to have their own opinion and to express it how they see fit, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with or like the way in which said individual chooses to express their opinion. In the case of Oceans, I have even more trouble seeing why such a strong opinion as that of the two filmmakers had to be veiled beneath a gorgeously shot film that pulls viewers in, only to side-punch them with a political message that is constructed using robots to get said message across. As such, I feel like the efforts made by the filmmakers to sway me to their way of thinking were cheap and misplaced, resulting in my ultimate dislike for this film and discounting it as a documentary altogether.
So ultimately, the reason I don’t get Oceans is that I cannot agree with the filmmakers’ use of re-enactment just to get their political message across. I think that is the real challenge of documentary, and really all filmmaking and storytelling, for that matter: always, always, always tell the truth in your work. In the case of documentary, you have to work just that much harder to tell the truth. So if you want to portray cruelty towards animals and take on that responsibility as a documentarian, put away the robots and go out and shoot some real material, as disturbing or haunting as it may be to you. Otherwise stop calling your work a documentary and go make some recruiting videos for Greenpeace.
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com