If The Cove were a fiction film, it would be derided as far-fetched, contrived, even hard to swallow.
The fact that it's nonfiction doesn't make it any easier to believe -- if only because the footage is so horrifying, the facts so disturbing. It's not that you can't believe it, but that you don't want to.
Which is what makes The Cove one of the most important and heroic pieces of work I've ever seen. It's not just that these filmmakers expose vicious, inhumane and ecologically dangerous practices, apparently sanctioned and covered up by the Japanese government and its media. But the filmmakers have done it while risking their freedom -- even their lives -- for the cause.
The result is the year's most exciting film -- as well as a documentary that can't help but leave you upset and outraged.
The film is directed by photographer Louis Psihoyos, a magazine photographer and documentarian whose head was turned around when he met dolphin activist Ric O'Barry. Once one of the leading dolphin trainers in the world -- his final job being TV's "Flipper" -- O'Barry flipped to the other side when he realized how miserable (he would say suicidal) the captive dolphins were. He became a vigilante about freeing dolphins that were part of marine-park dolphin shows (hello, Seaworld?) and swim-with-the-dolphins parks.
O'Barry, in turn, told Psihoyos about Taiji, Japan, which is secretly the world's largest unofficial abbatoir -- slaughterhouse, in other words -- for dolphins. Though the Japanese government protects the locals who undertake this barbaric practice, O'Barry knew that this one place accounted for the senseless killing of tens of thousands of dolphins each year.
Essentially, each year, as dolphins' migratory pattern takes them past Taiji, fisherman herd the dolphins into an inlet, which they then wall off with netting. The most desirable of the dolphins -- the bottlenoses that resemble Flipper -- are captured and sold to marine parks, aquariums and dolphinariums around the world. The rest are herded into a cove and slaughtered for meat -- despite the fact that they contain a high level of mercury.
But the government helps keep this practice secret by preventing anyone from witnessing this. While you can watch from land as the best dolphins are picked out of the first culling, the cove itself where the slaughter takes place is hidden by hills -- and the national park of which it is part is guarded and patrolled. Anyone caught trying to see what's really going on is arrested.
So Psihoyos recruited a mixed bag of specialists/commandos to make his own video assault on the cove. And that's the story of The Cove -- how, against the odds, these filmmakers captured on high-def video horrifying footage that the Japanese government does not want you to see.
At the same time, Psihoyos uses the film to clearly examine the politics of the International Whaling Commission, a seeming regulatory agency for the slaughter of cetaceans (of which both whales and dolphins are examples) that serves as an ineffective puppet for Japan and other whaling nations. He lays out the strings Japan pulls to get countries that have no fishing industry to vote their way through large infusions of cash.
In writing about this film, it's hard not to simply go off on a rant about Japan, which is not just the enabler but the muscle behind the efforts to keep this program secret. Psihoyos points out the sordid history of Minamata, the town where a powerful Japanese corporation, Chisso, routinely dumped mercury into the local waters, which accumulated in local seafood, poisoning the locals and leading to thousands of deaths and children born with deformities. The government fought efforts to publicize the problem, then to hold Chisso to account, for years, until the international outcry was too great.
So it is with The Cove, a movie that can't help but rouse audiences to action. Each raised voice, it would seem, is one more dagger in the heart of Japan's effort to cover up this aquatic atrocity. How much face can one country lose before it changes policies that sanction this kind of cruel criminal activity?
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