Filming atrocities in a fishing town
by Molly Templeton
THE COVE: Directed by Louie Psihoyos. Written by Mark Monroe. Music, J. Ralph. With Ric O’Barry, Simon Hutchins, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Kirk Krack, David Rastovich and Scott Baker. Roadside Attractions, 2009. PG-13. 92 min.
The Cove is a horrifying, fascinating, must-see movie for animal lovers. It’s a bit of a thriller, a bit self-indulgent, a bit weak in some of its arguments, but it’s nonetheless engrossing. Its main subject is a cove in Taiji, Japan, where thousands of dolphins are slaughtered each year. But its subject is as much passion, fervor and the ongoing atonement of a man who feels responsible for part of the world’s dolphin craze: Ric O’Barry, who worked as a dolphin trainer on Flipper.
Years later, regret weighs heavily on O’Barry, who came to believe that dolphins shoud never be in captivity. In Taiji, he drives around in a facemask, hunching his shoulders to present a changed profile to the cops and fishermen who tail him. He’s showing the town, which to all appearances (fountains! murals! statues!) adores dolphins and whales, to filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, who’s come to try to make a movie about the secret dolphin slaughter. Psihoyos is slightly wary at first — O’Barry is impassioned and direct, and at first he does seem a bit of a zealot — but before long he’s putting together a team of divers, cameramen, special effects artists and others, working to find a way into the hidden cove where the actual killing happens.
The Cove is partly a story about itself, about how the team was assembled, the gear placed, the cops eluded; it’s partly an explanation of the many reasons why the filmmakers believe the capture (the dolphins are first picked over by dolphin trainers, who pay highly for animals for their shows) and killing of the dolphins is wrong. On one side, there’s science: Dolphin meat is too heavily tainted with mercury to be fit for human consumption (some of it is sold as whale meat). The fishermen’s argument that they’re providing “pest control’ seems like a terrible joke; it’s not dolphins who are rapidly emptying the seas of fish. But there’s also an emotional reason: People love dolphins. Are many Americans (and others) against killing them simply because we can’t understand why the Japanese fishermen don’t think about the creatures like we do? At what point are cultural differences trumped by science? And is this actually a cultural difference? Psihoyos is careful not to point fingers at the Japanese people, many of whom are unaware that these killings are happening and, when interviewed on the street, are horrified to hear about it. The film’s target is twofold: the fishermen who do the killing, and the government that lets it happen.
Psihoyos’ film is a clever thing; its hook is the adventure — infrared cameras, underwater recording devices, spy-movie night expeditions — and its body is the science. Once he’s got the key footage, Psihoyos gets right out of the way. When the killing in the cove is finally onscreen, it’s even worse than expected. It would be difficult to watch any living creature killed en masse like this, the waters churning red, the dolphins flailing wildly as blood runs from gashes in their sides.
Everything else in the film — the interviews, the backstory — is a carefully built framework, a stage set for the sense of horror and outrage caused by the actual slaughter. In the end, O’Barry, too, is a stage: His face heavy and lined, he walks quietly through a whaling conference, that awful footage playing on a television strapped to his torso. No one wants to watch, but it’s even harder to look away.
The Cove opens Friday, Oct. 23, at the Bijou.