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Friday, February 3, 2012

The Cove


Title: The Cove

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: January 25th, 2012

MPAA Rating: PG-13

On the evening of January 25th, 2012, Oakland University hosted a screening of the 2010 Academy Award winning documentary The Cove. The film's director, Louie Psihoyos, took the podium afterward to share stories and answer audience questions. An organized conversation between him and several of the university's Cinema Studies students took place earlier in the day. I was part of the privileged group that got to participate.

Five minutes prior to the event, Psihoyos and I happened to be using the same washroom. As I was drying my hands with a paper towel, his stalwart voice asked "Are you finished using that?" I turned around in surprise when I realized he was talking to me. It wasn't his presence that triggered the startle. I already knew he was there. The man's tall stature made him difficult to miss. It was about what he was pointing at. The water faucet I had used to wash my hands had been unintentionally left running. I quickly apologized, corrected the error and allowed Psihoyos to have a little chuckle at my expense. Situations like this would normally instigate annoyance. It wasn't a big deal and the witness could easily rectify a problem like that on his own instead of confronting the guilty. But I couldn't blame an environmentalist like Psihoyos for being a stickler for those sort of details. I call him an environmentalist instead of a director because that's what his real occupation is. He just happens to use film as a tool for advancing his missions.

The main mission being discussed that day was the topic outlined in The Cove: the campaign to end man's killing of dolphins, most notably the slaughter that takes place in Taiji Japan every September to March. In making this documentary, Psihoyos and a team of animal experts including former famed dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry infiltrated a fisherman's cove in Taiji where dolphins are routinely captured and sold to captivity or slaughtered for meat. The cove is hidden off the map and guarded by a group of fishermen that want to keep it that way.

Taiji is described like a place out of The Twilight Zone. Dolphins are artistically displayed on gift shop merchandise, sidewalks and welcome signs. One of O'Barry's many quip-worthy observations is that based on the town's image, it's easy to assume that the people who live here love dolphins. Oh, they do alright. But not in the way they want us to believe. Dolphin sales is a big money business. Trainers from all over the world travel to Taiji to select which of these animals will become the next attraction at their respective water parks. The rejected ones are left to die under inhumane methods. None are ever spared.

As always with documentaries, I approached this one with caution because of filmmakers' natural tendencies to present one-sided or manufactured realities. I was already aware of the long-running standoffs regarding what is morally or culturally acceptable to kill and consume. I don't support animal cruelty but do eat meat, which is reason enough for people like Psihoyos to think less of me. But what should be made clear to anyone who passes early judgment on a film like this is that the arguments are not as emotionally charged and black-and-white as detractors claim; Nor is it particularly complex like sceptics such as myself hypothesized. This is not a "Dolphins are cute and therefore shouldn't be harmed" public service announcement. It's about so much more importance; namely mankind's long term future becoming jeopardized by their own actions.

A common preconceived notion rejects the idea of any animal as food being off-limits. The revelation of dolphin slaughter is enough to stir curiosity just about anywhere because of how the meat doesn't fit into anyone's idea of a well-balanced diet. Yet cultures are also aware about how some differences in tradition are viewed as strange to those from the outside looking in. If there's no knee-jerk reaction, an inquirer might consider that there must be a reason for dolphins being eaten. After all, people in the Western Hemisphere eat cows and chicken without thinking anything of it. Maybe that's the way it is with dolphins in Japan. It's the sushi capital of the world after all. That's how the Taiji fishermen defend their practice. It's a cultural difference. Nothing more, nothing less. But a basic investigation snuffs out that theory.

Turns out that dolphin consumption is not a recognized part of Eastern tradition. Very few people in Japan were even aware that the slaughter was taking place mainly due to the country's strong censorship power over their media outlets. The public awareness has grown considerably following the release of this film. Most of the time, dolphin meat is not even correctly labeled and are riddled with such high quantities of mercury that you'd have to be insane, desperate or ignorant to even think of touching it.

So the lie is exposed. The companies behind the dolphin slaughter are not doing it for reasons related to culture or survival. But if that condition were to change, would it then become acceptable? No way, says Ric O'Barry. This man's story is fascinating enough to warrant its own separate documentary. Besides being one of the world's leading activists (his criminal record suggests that he might be the ultimate leader), his knowledge gained from years of close contact with dolphins relates insight into why they may have better use than being water park attractions and how they would be ultimately better left off in the wild. The ironic part about this thesis is that O'Barry was one of the pioneers of dolphin captivity and exhibition. His work on the popular Flipper television series helped build the public's fascination and the market for these water park shows which he has now grown to hate.

The Cove is a call to action and one that opts to aim at the emotional heartstrings to get that action rolling: a most necessary strategy in social issues like this no matter how many facts on paper are available. For their ace in the hole, Psihoyos and his team plant hidden cameras in the Taiji cove under the town's watchful radar in a sequence reminiscent of a Hollywood spy thriller. It's less cohesive than the aforementioned analogy but expected for an authentic operation that only has room for one take. The aftermath is a crowning achievement in the activists' cause as they finally succeed in exposing the slaughter footage that the perpetrators would have literally killed to have permanently kept out of the public eye.

Big budget movie studios calculate paying customers as fifteen dollar items in the seats, totaling the cost of an admission ticket with concessions. Activist filmmakers like Louie Psihoyos prefers to think of spectators as minds in the seats. That was his motivation for exposing The Cove to the world. One of the most memorable quotes from him in the film is the declaration that there is no middle ground between an activist and an inactivist. At the post-screening Q&A, I asked him what the precise difference was. His response included a reference to a popular philosophy that appropriately summed up his life's mission. "The only thing necessary for the triumpth of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Rating: 9

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