The title of “The Cove” refers to a cliff-surrounded section of water in the town of Taiji, Japan, where an approximate 23,000 dolphin are purportedly slaughtered annually for their meat by fishermen seeking both to gain profit from the resulting product and to make big bucks from selling survivors to water parks the world over. It is here where director Louie Psihoyos’ film takes primary focus, catching the grim slaughter of the famously intelligent sea creatures that happens here between sequences that dis-spell the mythology used to justify such actions, revealing the negative biological results of the sometimes unknowing consumption of the high-in-mercury meat and the callous but no less transparent cover-up actions taken by Japanese officials who would seek to justify their endeavors through misleading packaging of culture, business and biology — all while lining their own pockets.
If there’s a human focal point throughout, such comes with dolphin defender Richard O’Barry, the former “Flipper” trainer inspired to stop feeding the wildlife-exploiting machine since the day one of the animals he trained — in his words — committed suicide. He’s captured by the filmmakers as a man both wounded and inspired by the fact, regretful of the ramifications of his marketing of dolphins to the public through “Flipper” and in turn defiant in the face of the species’ current tormentor, be they the fishermen seemingly trying to make ends meet or the businessmen and politicians who seek not to reverse of even maintain the present plight of dolphins and whales but to increase it. If the documentary were in the need of a beating heart, he’d be it. Thankfully, “The Cove” doesn’t want for that.
Attempting to shine a light on shameful fishing practices and astonishing cruelty, “The Cove” is another example of a documentary functioning as cinematic activism. Here’s a non-fiction film that actually cares about its subjects, powerfully and beautifully championing its water-dwelling inspirations while it roundly condemns individuals and corporations responsible (both directly and indirectly) for their peril. Up until now, western audiences might be most familiar with such particular brand of environmentalism through the much-televised images of TV and movie star Hayden Panettiere and friends being arrested for their attempts at intervention a few years back. In “The Cove,” these clips are reduxed, coupled with more penetrating and insightful information on the length and breadth of the problem.
Not only do the on-screen activists and indeed the camera capture the killings of the animals as sights of bloody extinguishment, but it pairs such off with information on the cause and effect. With a smaller market than you might expect to exist in Japan for the edible produce, the film traces how the powers-that-be manipulate their own system to the point where shoppers buying what they think is fish or whale meat may actually find themselves consuming dolphins. Not only that, but dolphin meat that contains high levels of mercury, toxic material that can prove exceedingly damaging to the health of one’s self and one’s offspring. For impact and relevance, “The Cove” provides a montage of sufferers of Minamata disease, a debilitating neurological condition caused by mercury poisoning that can have severe effects on muscle strength, eyesight and hearing, and which has a high death rate. Needless to say, this makes for one of the film’s most profound passages, and with it the film qualifies itself not just as a work of animal championing but of considerable humanism.
Lest one arrive at the conclusion that Psihoyos’s film is merely a work of liberalist propoganda, the film unravels not simply with gasp-inspiring revelation upon revelation but with a noble aesthetic sensibility. Looking at the film is marvelous, be it when observing the gorgeous underwater camerawork that witnesses dolphins and humans interacting as a bright sun awesomely emphasises the aquatic blueness of the water or in the way the conflicted town of Taiji seems to exist not merely as a backdrop but as a breathing, legitimate place. Amidst all these sights come the inevitable, anticipated sights of death – enabled courtesy of the team of infiltrating activists whose planting of hidden cameras (in fake rocks, or obscured underwater) around the cove makes for the film’s most overtly suspenseful sequences. A sub-surface shot of a plant and its surrounding water suddenly turning crimson signifies the beginning of the film’s climactic slaughter, while the overhead shot of the now blood-red water could just as well of had biblical connotations as environmental. This isn’t just a film of hectoring and sermonizing, it’s one of deep, alert imagery.
If “The Cove” occasionally suffers from a structure that sees a series of lines of discussion attempting to converge into one whole as well as a portrait of its Japanese characters that isn’t especially flattering nor quite as studios as it is with its chosen heroes, its ultimate triumph is solidified in the way it observes how some people continue to sell their very souls in the pursuit of profit and prosperity; how their dialogue is barely ever informed by concern or sympathy for intelligent aquatic creatures. Much focus is given to the International Whaling Committee, where a series of poorer nations are portrayed as having been effectively bought by Japanese representatives attempting to drum up support for controversial measures that would see a return to the banned practices of whale hunting – all in spite of such nations having a considerable lack of whale or dolphin activity, not to mention contradictory scientific evidence to the claims the Japanese IWC membership makes.
Elsewhere, the fishermen who frequently follow the English-speaking subjects around on their mission of sabotage and observation partake in a final slaughter wherein the suffering of the subjected dolphins contradicts the policy-apparent of Japanese authorities, who suggest that they’ve pioneered a method of slaughter that minimizes the animals’ suffering. When Deputy of Fisheries for Japan Hideki Moronuki is confronted with evidence that suggests anything but painless death, his immediate reaction is simply to inquire where the captured footage was obtained from. “The Cove” betrays morality and prioritization completely out-of-whack better than anything I’ve seen from much-championed documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.
Speaking as a person with a big interest in wildlife and conservation, I accept that “The Cove” might resonate so much with me for its telling portrayal of systematic deception and distortion pertaining to the mass killing of animals on a level distinct from less emotionally invested viewers. Yet still, I expect the film would leave an impression (and in many instances — as highlighted by its recent Oscar triumph — it already has) on others in its engaging method, its conscientiousness, its cinematic visuals and its endearing cast of characters. Climaxing with scenes that follow the often tear-stricken O’Barry as he storms an IWC meet to unveil the damaging video footage he and his peers have obtained, “The Cove” is enough to make you want to hop on a surfboard, paddle out in the water, cut a big fishing net and spend twenty-eight days in a grimy foreign prison cell. It’s an enlightening, vitally important work.
“The Cove” is out on DVD now.
. . .
Follow Tom Elce on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tom_elce.