Sunday 10 May 2009

The Cove

The story of "The Cove" revolves around Ric O'Barry, the former dolphin trainer for the old TV show "Flipper". Due to the enormous success of the show, he feels that he helped build an interest in dolphins which has led to their popularity. A multi-million dollar industry has grown up around this interest, including places like Sea World and people's desire to swim with these beautiful creatures. So why is he so sad when the dolphins look so happy?

According to Ric, the dolphins' smile is "nature's greatest deception". That happy expression is just by evolutionary chance and he claims that the many captive dolphins are actually not happy at all - their treatment actually amounts to cruelty. Being confined to seaquariums introduces the dolphins to a far wider variety of constant sound which prevents them from properly communicating (acoustics are their primary sense), stresses them out and leads to early deaths. O'Barry admits he feels a terrible guilt for helping to perpetuate this stereotype of the happy captive dolphin, so he has tried to raise awareness. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of money involved. In the small Japanese fishing village of Taiji, dolphins are corralled in a cove and the best ones (ie. the ones that look like Flipper) are sold for upwards of $150000 each. That's bad enough and O'Barry has been fighting against these captures for some time, but Taiji has another secret...The dolphins that aren't selected for sale aren't simply released back to the wild. They are brought around the corner to another cove - a smaller one, hidden from public view, where each one is slaughtered.

The word "slaughter" is, of course, a loaded word since there's certainly the potential to use it in very biased ways. And "The Cove" certainly has its biases. There are numerous instances of anecdotal information being used as fact and a dependency on manipulation of the viewer's emotions - after all, dolphins are beautiful creatures and are known to have levels of intelligence closer to ours than just about any other species. There's also the question of the fishermen - what if their own livelihoods depend on those additional sales of the remaining animals (which are sold as meat at much smaller rates than the live sales)?

But...If you can watch the hidden camera footage from the secret cove (which closes the film) and NOT think of the word "slaughter", then you have a very different definition of the word. It's actually quite difficult to watch and several people in the audience covered their faces during this section. I tend to see a lot of gray when it comes to examining issues and ideas and feel there's rarely black and white sides. Complex issues require in depth information gathering to figure out the large continuum of possibilities and answers. However, from all appearances, what's happening in Taiji is simply wrong. Shockingly, disturbingly and inhumanely wrong.

The film sets up this final hidden camera footage early on. You know it's coming and there's a certain tension that stays with you as the story moves forward. Until that time though, you get some interesting background on Japan's involvement in the whaling industry, meet a wide spectrum of characters, see absolutely stunning underwater footage and get involved in "Mission Impossible" style capers. In other words, it's extremely entertaining all the while it's trying to get its message across.

Sneaking in under the cover of night to rig the cameras and microphones in the tightly secured hidden cove is the only way the filmmakers feel they can capture what's going on there. To do it though, they need a special team: special effects people, deep divers, crazy adrenaline junkies, etc. We meet the members of the team and via night vision cameras see them gradually move all the equipment into the area. All this spy action is incorporated nicely into the flow of the film as we also get to see some of the villains of the story - particularly the Japanese representative to the International Whaling Commission (who frames dolphins as pests) and a local man in Taiji dubbed "Private Space" (after the only two English words he seems to know).

On top of all the excitement and information the movie imparts, the cinematography is at times just breathtaking. It's understandably gorgeous since director Louis Psihoyos has worked for National Geographic in the past. The entire film looks great (except for some of the hidden camera and night time video), but specifically anything to do with the dolphins is spectacular - whether it be diving and swimming with dolphins or tracking them along their playful journeys.

Japanese culture, according to the film, likes to ensure that "the nail that sticks out must be pounded down". This seems to apply to the country's continued push for whaling as well as the consequences that are suffered by the two Taiji council men who block the pushing of the dolphin meat to the school lunch program. Beyond the fact that it would lead to more killings, there's a very real health issue - mercury poisoning from the dolphins. It's yet another head-shaking and baffling moment in the whole issue.

It all adds up to a fascinating, entertaining, beautiful, sometimes depressing and inspiring experience. One of the participants of the team was on hand for a Q&A after the film and conveyed a strong message to the audience - whether we contributed to their cause or not, he emphasized that at the very least we should get involved in a cause we believe in.


Peter said...

Hi! Thanks for this great review! If people want to get involved and help, they should check out the Save Japan Dolphins website at You can sign up to get updates from Ric O'Barry and also donate to the cause.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Peter...Thanks for the comment. I should have mentioned the site. I'll be curious to see if the film has an impact on not only the contributions, but on the situation itself. It's hard to believe that kind of thing is tolerated.