Movie Review: The Cove

2009. Directed by Louis Psihoyos.

I put off watching The Cove because I knew what I was going to see. Sometimes you need movies to escape the depressing aspects of life, rather than focus on them. But witnessing what happens in this brave documentary is important.

The debut of this film was the first I’d heard about the dolphin capture and slaughter in a hidden cove near Taiji, along the coast of Japan. From September to March of every year, dolphins are detoured from their migratory route, chased by boats with men aboard banging on pipes, and herded into shallow waters to be speared and left to bleed out. Some are captured for export to entertainment parks. The local fishermen are extremely aggressive in keeping activists away and, for a long time, were very successful at it.

As much as I dreaded watching it, The Cove was rewarding to watch due to the way the situation is filmed. First, the man who has led the opposition in Taiji is Richard O’Barry, who began as a trainer on the 1960s television show, Flipper. O’Barry is motivated by the wealth brought to him by the show and the subsequent popularity of captured dolphins for performance in venues around the world. After years of exploiting the animals, he regretted what he’d done and began working to free captured dolphins and end the Japanese slaughter.

O’Barry describes the dolphin’s smile, loved by millions of visitors to Sea World and venues like it, as a cruel joke of nature. The animals are highly intelligent, capable of communication and gentle when encountering humans in the wild. When confined and isolated, they suffer depression and anxiety. Those same people who love them performing in a water park wouldn’t want them captured and confined if they knew how the experience destroyed the dolphins.

Second, the film includes a high-tech adventure story, as director Louis Psihoyos assembles an “Ocean’s Eleven” team to elude the local police, infiltrate the cove and plant audio and video equipment that will document what happens out of sight. Thermal cameras, night dives and reconnaissance missions add some suspense to the substance of the film, which also tackles fish stock depletion, international whaling debates and the mercury poisoning that results from the overfishing.

The most telling aspect of The Cove is the acknowledgment by the fishermen that if the world found out what was happening at Taiji, the killing of 33,000 dolphins each year there would end. The few who benefit continue to hide behind claims of tradition, but most Japanese didn’t know it was taking place and don’t support it. Many don’t realize that inferior dolphin meat was being passed off as more expensive and scarcer whale meat. When the fishermen tried to give dolphin meat to a school lunch program, despite its heavy mercury content, two Taiji city councilmen stepped up to oppose it, endangering their own lives and livelihood.

The footage and sound recordings captured by the activist team is presented without comment, but there really is no need for any. But it’s clear why none of the Japanese involved wanted their faces and actions caught on film. The question that remains is, if they are so ashamed of what they are doing, why are they still doing it?

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