“The Cove” is a documentary about Taiji, Japan’s capital for dolphin hunting, and how effective it is is directly proportional to how horrified you feel at the idea of dolphins being killed for meat. I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, the answer is: not very. I didn’t relish the concluding footage of the world’s most lovable cetacean flopping through its death throes in bloody water, but in the end I felt the same way I’ve felt when confronted with a look inside commercial slaughterhouses — was anyone expecting it to be pretty? Dolphins, unlike whales, aren’t endangered. They’re just cute.
A production of the Oceanic Preservation Society, funded by Netscape founder Jim Clark, “The Cove” is in part a very well supplied heist-style stunt that someone in the film compares to “Ocean’s Eleven.” While anyone can watch the dolphins be rounded up and offered to trainers as potential performers, for obvious PR reasons no one’s allowed to witness what follows, when the remaining animals are herded into a secluded area to be slaughtered by local fishermen. Director Louie Psihoyos and crew gather champion freedivers, military-grade thermal imaging equipment and HD cameras hidden in rocks designed by Industrial Light and Magic to capture the carnage in the forbidden zone. The film’s hero and guide is Ric O’Barry, former “Flipper” trainer turned dolphin protecting advocate, and its villains are many: the Taiji government, the local fishermen, SeaWorld, the International Whaling Commission. As “The Cove” tries to spiral out to tie in the first wave of mercury poisoning, caused by corporate pollution in the ’50s, and to touch on the massive Japanese fishing industry in general, it loses focus, makes some serious leaps of logic and at times flirts — unconsciously, to be sure — with racism in its generalizations.
Someone suggests that Japan’s insistence on whaling, and therefore the dolphin industry that’s grown since the ban, is a remnant of the country’s old empire status, one stubborn sticking point against bowing to the will of the west. It’s an interesting suggestion — certainly dolphin meat, cultural legacy or not, doesn’t have much of a market share in the country, as a far-too-brief man on the street segment indicates. And it’s cultural difference and unwillingness to bend on both sides that’s led to this issue. For the moist-eyed interviewees on the side of “good” in “The Cove,” dolphins are mirrors in which they see themselves. For the residents of Taiji, dolphins are just another type of sea life, and they see no disconnect in seeing them perform at the aquarium, and then buying dolphin meat in the gift shop. They just didn’t get to make a movie about it.
“The Cove” currently has no U.S. distribution. See all of IFC.com’s Sundance coverage here.
[Photo: “The Cove,” Oceanic Preservation Society, 2009]