Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Cove (2009)

Starring: Ric O'Barry Brook Aitken, Joe Chrisholm
Director: Lou Psihoyos

"They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lighting..."

Well, as it turns out, Flipper was five different dolphins. And they were all female. And one of them offed herself.

Sounds kind of random, don't you think? It is actually part of the Academy Award-winning documentary about a group of activists who have set out to investigate a secret cove in Taiji, Japan that they say is being used as a massive dolphins slaughterhouse. It flows them as they get plan on how to discover the horrors that they think await the creatures. In addition, they offer their thoughts on why these animals are being senselessly killed and why no one, until now, has done anything about it.

The heart and soul of the group is Ric O'Barry. His story is a mixture of "Nixon-goes-to-China" and redemption. As the trainer of the dolphins who starred in the "Flipper" TV show, O'Barry sparked an interest in the creatures and helped create a multi-billion dollar industry that lives on today in aquariums and Sea World. But success came with a price: after the show was cancelled, the dolphins were taken to aquariums, were they suffered from serve physiological stress. The turning point for him came when one of the Flippers, named Kathy, died in his arms after a period of poor health, supposedly at her own will (yeah, this sounds weird, but it makes more sense when he explains it in the film). Right afterward, he transformed into an activist determined to free and protect the world's dolphins. As he puts it, he spent ten years of his life trying to build up the dolphin industry and the last thirty-five years trying to tear it down.

As passionate as he is about his cause, O'Barry is only one man who is nearly his seventies, so he recruits a bunch of young(er) activists in his quest to plug a hole in the dolphin population drain. This brings them to the mysterious cove in Taiji, which is believed be used by local fishermen as a way to capture dolphins in order to either sell or kill them, resulting in the deaths of 23,000 of them each year. They are soon confronted by the fishermen as well as, believe it or not, secret police who are not happy about them being there. As a result, they take matters into their own hands and they use their expertise and technology, like night vision goggles and hidden cameras, to investigate the situation. While this is going on, they talk to the viewers about why this place has been allowed to operate with little or no scrutiny.

There is one thing that this documentary makes clear: the filmmakers REALLY hate Japan! I mean, Jesus, they really go after this country! They talk about the agenda of the fishing industry as well as Japan's questionable deals within the International Whaling Commission. It is here that we meet Masayuki Komatsu, who was then a delegate for the commission. You will learn to dislike him; talk about a cold and calculating bureaucrat! I mean, just look at his photo:
Could they have picked a smarmier or creepier-looking guy as their representative?

Umm, well, the other guy is still pretty bad...

While economics is seen as an obvious reason for why the slaughter is prevalent, they say that it is not the only, or even the principle, cause of the problem. They go on to explain that the country's culture of secrecy, misguided nationalism, and emphasis on conformity have allowed the events in the cove to occur, causing serious dangers not only to the dolphins but also the Japanese people themselves. They are really interesting arguments that look at the big picture and sheds light on topics that many people would probably either ignore or feel too political incorrect about mentioning publicly. It is much more convincing that if they were just saying "The big, bad fisherman don't care about the sweet little dolphins; they just like to make a lot of money and be meanies!!!" Granted, it provides a pretty one-sided view of Japan that seems a little unfair at times. But then again, while bias is encouraged to be minimized, this is a documentary; its suppose to be represent its own point of view (it should also be note that there is one point where the filmmakers interview two local councilmen who appear to be a little more aware than some of their contemporaries of the problems that are occurring in the country). And if all or most of this is true, then...well, there is really not much to argue about then, is there?

Ok, let me address what many of you are probably thinking: why should I care about a bunch of dolphin-hugging hippies who are focused on this one type of animal in this one spot in the world? It is fair to say that the animal rights movement has long been stalled because many of its supporters in the past have broadcast uncomfortably radical views and have used outlandish tactics, both of which have been counterproductive (as anyone who has ever seen them on the news or brilliantly parodied on "South Park" can concur). Thankfully, this is largely absent in the film: O'Barry and the others are primarily asking for the stop to the slaughter and possibly rethinking the entertainment industry surrounding the creatures. The tactics they use, while not exactly 100% legal, are more akin to investigative reporters than crazy activists. True, some of O'Barry's personal, more controversial opinions and actions are hinted at, but they are mostly (and wisely) downplayed to avoid alienating viewers.

Now, to fair, one of the few qualms I have about the documentary (other than the Japanese thing) is that it doesn't focus enough on why it is important that this be stopped. Yes, it does speak about the intelligence of the creatures and obviously hits upon the sympathy of their plight (the finale, which shows raw footage of the fishermen in action, is pretty gruesome). But these aren't enough; the first point can be attack from a multitude of different angles and the second feels a little empty on substance. The filmmakers should have spoken more about the overall environmental impact that the disappearance of the dolphins would have on the ecology and how putting an end to the activities in this one spot can have a tremendous impact on preventing much of the damage.

Overall, this is a very enlightening and well-made production about an important topic. It isn't perfect and it is bound to get a lot of people unset, but for the most part, its message is clear: there is a disruption occurring on the shores of Taiji and it needs to be stopped. As for the documentary itself, I definitely recommend it.

These images are not mine and are used here for entertainment purposes only. Please do not sue me.