A friend of mine once insisted that I watch Seaspiracy, a popular Netflix documentary about saving our oceans. Its revealing information and calls to action had sunken her into despair. After watching the film, however, I didn’t have the same reaction. I realized that what’s truly harmful to the environment are bad documentaries, such as Seaspiracy

Since Seaspiracy’s release and rise to popularity, some experts have argued that it’s poorly researched and sensationalist. If you haven’t already seen it, I’ll save you the time and energy of watching this documentary by providing a summary.

A white man living in Europe finds that his everyday actions do little to protect the oceans. Wanting to do more, he travels and encounters industrial and commercial fishing. Industrial fishing is the intensive use of machinery and other technologies in the process, while commercial fishing involves catching fish and seafood for profit. He paints a system of global corruption mediated by interviews with both experts and irrelevant people, such as the front desk worker at Mitsubishi, the automobile company. To top it off, there are a ton of gory images of whales and other marine life being mutilated and killed. Ultimately, he concludes that the best way to protect the ocean is to stop eating fish and instead consume plant-based products that taste like fish.

Power and influence on film-making

It’s often easy to ignore the role of power in the production, dissemination, and consumption of film media. As viewers, we’re only shown the final product; we’re not immediately exposed to the various processes, technologies, biases, and politics involved. These are mostly hidden behind the screen in funding agreements, storyboarding, the technologies used, the people working on the project, and the film’s editing. These factors are important in interpreting documentaries and the narratives they project forward. 

Consider the financial support necessary to produce the 90-minute film that takes place across three continents. Seaspiracy is funded by British green-energy industrialist Dale Vince, who in 2010 bought a soccer team that he later transformed into the world’s first vegan sports club. The film’s message — we should all stop eating fish and choose plant-based alternatives — financially benefits Vince’s beliefs and businesses. 

Similarly, the content of the film should also be called into question. Who is Seaspiracy’s narrator interacting with? Which demographics are represented in his storytelling? 

The interviews conducted in the documentary are primarily with people who disagree with fishing or are unfamiliar with the fishing industry. In this way, the film reproduces the biases of its funders by selecting people who either align with their message or do not have the language to contest it. 

Imagine if Seaspiracy interviewed a range of communities who have historically relied on fishing: there are more than 1,000 in Atlantic Canada. These communities have knowledge of relationships between fisheries and marine life that existed before industrial fishing. They could also demonstrate ecologically responsible practices. 

But rather than highlighting how different types of fishing have varying effects on marine life, the documentary portrays a dangerously simplistic relationship between consuming fish and climate crises — a message that erases the realities of many communities across the world.

Manufacturing despair

Seaspiracy’s representation of commercial fishing produces the despair of its audiences. It’s alarming that someone curious about saving our oceans could sit in front of a screen for 90 minutes and then think there’s nothing significant we can do about the problem. Even worse — they’ll think that adopting a plant-based diet is a reasonable response to a generational crisis. 

The effect Seaspiracy has on its audiences demonstrates how the media can immobilize us from creating change, despite a willingness to engage. The effect of such narratives hinders meaningful actions that can protect the environment. For these reasons, we must consider all documentaries in a serious manner.

How to watch films responsibly

In an era defined by the constant threat of ecological crises, people are searching for ways to learn how to save the environment. Through funding, suggesting, hosting, and creating films, streaming platforms like Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime allow people to engage with pressing issues from the comfort of their homes. For many, this availability of educational media provides excellent learning opportunities outside of formal educational structures. 

Although documentaries like Seaspiracy are dangerous for combating environmental crises, films can be great tools to spread awareness, assist with formal and informal education, and inspire meaningful engagement.

Fortunately, viewers are interested in sharing their interpretations of films. However, they must recognize the implicit politics in the media they consume and cautiously watch and interrogate documentaries. They must challenge the knowledge it’s producing, instead of sharing misinformation via discussing the films they consume.

This interrogation can begin by questioning critical aspects of all films. There are some important questions that need to be considered. Why is the film being made? Who is the film being made by? Who does the film benefit and harm? Who is not present, and how does this impact the narrative being constructed? Where and how did I access this film? 

In the age of mass media, documentaries about the climate crisis will continue to be created. It is our responsibility to evade any despair manufactured by poorly researched documentaries that ensure continuous harm by making us forfeit our agency to affect meaningful change. Questioning documentaries can help us identify and dismiss incomplete, irresponsible, and harmful representations of reality.