Few nature activists can bring their work to the masses, but that’s exactly what longtime National Geographic photographer-turned-documentarian Louie Psihoyos didd with 2009’s Oscar-winning “The Cove,” an exposé of the rampant dolphin slaughter in the Japanese fishing industry. Now Psihoyos is attempting a similar achievement with “6,” which showcases various activist efforts he’s engineered with his colleagues at the nonprofit Ocean Preservation Society (OPS).
“6” casts a much wider net than “The Cove.” It explores the threat of a sixth “mass extinction” on Earth, citing the alarming statistic that around 30,000 species go extinct each year. On Friday, Psihoyos screened the film as a work-in-progress at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it still needs a lot of work.
Like “The Cove,” the filmmaker’s new documentary turns the activist efforts of OPS into an exciting espionage tale as his team travels the world busting people killing and smuggling endangered ocean species. There’s no doubting the OPS’ vital purpose. “You can take a picture,” Psihoyos says in the film, “and change behavior.”
But cinema is a different language. While “The Cove” successfully turned its cause into a riveting drama, “6” faces a number of problems that hold it back from being another galvanizing documentary achievement.
Although the first public screening was a work in progress, it closed with a plea for viewers to share feedback. We’ve obliged. Here’s some of the issues that currently prevent “6” from being as good a movie as it is a cause.
Find some American culprits. Whether they’re using clandestine cameras to take down a California restaurant that’s serving whale sushi or capturing thousands of shark fins on a rooftop in China, the largely unnamed transgressors are Asians. The unintended result is a portrait of bleeding-heart white guys taking down non-white evildoers. Surely there are some Americans who shoulder blame; either way, this representation needs to be addressed to downplay its inadvertently racist undertones.
Address the larger economic equation. Understandably, Psihoyos has no sympathy for the figures who endorse killing endangered species; however, the film needs a more sophisticated understanding of the problem. Not every restaurant owner or shark fin smuggler is a one-note villain; they’re all struggling to make a living, fighting to meet an absurd demand and probably unsure what else they might do to survive. Their desperation is part of the tragedy, and depicting them as anonymous antagonists holds back the argument for a greater social consciousness that could help stop their crimes. While OPS manages to raise awareness about the ills of shark fin soup with a popular infomercial in China, it still doesn’t take into account why others have ignored the cause.
Produce one narrative thread. In “The Cove,” Psihoyos blended the movie’s emotional ingredients into a universal experience via dolphin activist Ric O’Barry. A hero with an incredible origin story, he worked as a trainer on “Flipper” before recognizing the intelligence of dolphins and growing passionate about fighting their persecution in the wild.
Unfortunately, “6” lacks the same sort of conduit. Instead, like a series of installments on a reality TV show, it veers from one OPS operation to another. As a result, there’s a remote quality to the activists’ own emotional investment: We see Psihoyos tear up when discussing his cause, and one of his colleagues falls apart while recalling his experience locking eyes with a dying manta ray. But these moments only address viewers already susceptible to the cause. To anyone else, it’s manipulation.
However, that may be part of the intent. “He’s just a polemicist,” one colleague told me after the Tribeca screening. “I guess that’s the spirit you have to take it in.” Fair enough, but that description applies to many activist documentarians, some of whom make compelling movies in the process — including Michael Moore.
Give us some well-defined personalities. Psihoyos and his team demonstrate a serious commitment to their cause, but we never really get a sense for them as characters. And the few moments that show some personality are more off-putting than revealing. One sequence finds Louie and his team traveling with an infrared camera that reveals the volume of dioxide gases leaked by vehicles. Staring at a monitor, Psihoyos suddenly wears a goofy grin, sticks out his tongue and goes, “Bleeah!” The casual lack of gravitas is a distraction — unless Psihoyos typically adopts a playful attitude to cope with the ugliness at the root of his activism. But “6” doesn’t make that clear.
Bring us back to the whales. The movie begins with a startling opening sequence in which Psihoyos captures video footage of human divers swimming alongside blue whales. In the process, his team discovers a buoy that records whale sounds for a Cornell University acoustic laboratory. Journeying there, the director encounters an archive filled with recordings of species dating back to the 1930s, including several that are now extinct. It’s a terrific scene-setter that puts the mission in context, but “6” never returns to it. Instead, the movie devotes its final third to the use of “super projections” that allow OPS to broadcast messages about dying species as large moving images in public places. Currently, the film ends with a note explaining that OPS will attempt its largest projection effort later this year in New York City, which will provide the movie with its climax. Maybe that moment will give the project a smoother landing, but right now it looks like “6” needs more than just one big finish before it feels complete.