(2009) dir. Louie Psihoyos
The Cove is a pretty amazing documentary. And while it’s quite possible to fault its potential as objectivity, produced by the organization that aims to highlight what the film’s subject matter consists of, there is a key element of what the film is about. The film is about documenting. It’s about capturing on video the slaughter of thousands of dolphins every year in a bay in Japan, an intensely guarded secret, held tight by the local fishermen, the Japanese government, and the Sea World Foundation, which gets most of its captive dolphin collection from the harvest.
The film follows the covert operation of the activists, who break into the area in dark of night, set cameras in fake rocks, and capture for the first time for public distribution the gravity and gruesomeness of this annual harvet/butchery. And it’s bloody, pathetic, and stomach-turning. The images would severely upset almost anyone, but certainly anyone who can’t stand to see harm come to animals, much less, very intelligent and seemingly sentient creatures as these.
The hero of the film, more or less, is Ric O’Barry, who had starred on the Flipper television show in the 1960’s and was primary caretaker as well as trainer to the captured dolphins. Through an epiphany of his, transformed by a moving experience with his own dolphins, O’Barry switched from trainer to hardcore activist, driven to free every dolphin in captivity. He blames himself for helping to create the industry of dolphin capture and ocean-themed entertainment parks. He claims that he spent 10 years promoting it, and 35 years trying to undo what he had done.
The filmmaker, Louie Psihoyos, appears in the film himself, recounting his commitment to ocean conservancy and activism and how he came into contact with O’Barry. Psihoyos establishes a crack team of varying specialists to pull off this daring coup.
The local fishermen and officials of Taiji are in denial about the lethal quantaties of mercury in dolphin flesh that makes them not something people should be eating, really at all. And while this is an outcropping of other environmental disasters, it truly questions why this industry is allowed to ruthlessly harvest these creatures.
Ships use sound torture to frighten and herd the dolphins into this cove. And then they are selected in a first wave of businesses looking for captive dolphins, mostly bottlenosed dolphins as Flipper was. These sell for thousands of dollars each. And when that first cull is complete, the dolphins are herded into an even more secret and protected cove to be slaughtered with spears, litteral “fish” in a barrel. No hunting, no game, just slaughter.
And the sounds recorded cry out, babies are separated from their parents, and they all seem to “know” that they are doomed. The water turns absolutely red with their blood.
The film goes over the history of cetacean protective agencies, and the Japanese government’s staunch and adamant position in opposition to the rest of the world. And sadly for the dolphins, who are cetaceans, are too small to have made the protected list of the International Whaling Commission, a loophole exploited by the Japanese government.
Ultimately, while the film does attempt an aspect of objectivity, researching and questioning oppositional forces, it’s clear that due to the dark secret of this subject and the rigorously tight clampdown on knowledge, that perhaps it truly takes someone willing to risk a great deal to bring this annual atrocity to light. And that is the film’s goal, to get this message out to the general public, including Japanese citizens who know nothing of this practice.
And as a result, it must document. It must capture this story, these images, to open the eyes of the world. To prove out the allegations, which are rendered strongly by the story and definitely by the video footage.
When I’d first read about this film, I wondered how slanted its perspective to be, but honestly, the film is deft and well-constructed, follows some intense and passionate people against other intense and passionate people, all in the name of stopping this slaughter, starting there. It’s powerful stuff.