Taiji, Japan is a fishing town with a dark secret. Every year while on their annual migration, thousands of dolphins are forced into a secretive cove, and slaughtered. Why? Well they eat too many of our fish and fetch a good price, both dead and alive. Winner of the Best Documentary category at the 2010 Oscars, “Eco-Thriller” The Cove follows a small team of activists led by Ric O’Barry as they attempt to secretly film the slaughter and expose it to the world.
The film begins with an introduction to O’Barry. A former dolphin trainer on the 1960s TV show Flipper, O’Barry has now made it his life’s work to protect dolphins and free as many of them from captivity as possible. Quite a shift for someone who used to work acquiring dolphins to be trained in captivity for our entertainment. It’s an interesting personal story that is developed throughout the film and one of many threads that come together to make this a very well-rounded and compelling documentary.
It’s during the preparation phase when the team arrive in Taijii that the film is at its most compelling. On their arrival in Taijii, the team of activists are made to feel less than welcome, immediately being tailed by a suspicious car. O’Barry himself is known by the local fisherman and police and so must wear hats and glasses to try and conceal his identity behind the wheel, it’s very disconcerting and there’s a real sense of unease and fear. The task of getting the cameras in place at the cove becomes something of a military operation, with the team having to plan strategically, operate under the cover of darkness using night vision cameras and communicate over radios, in order to avoid contact with locals, it almost feels like espionage behind enemy lines. The use of night vision shots and radio transmissions during these scenes is very effective and dramatic. Specifically designed hidden cameras, built by a special effects company in California to look like rocks and boulders, are placed at various carefully chosen points around the cove. Psihoyos has since stated that to make the film “we didn’t need filmmakers, we needed pirates”.
Between footage of the preparation, the film attempts to highlight and explain a few of the underlying issues surrounding the slaughter, with varying degrees of success. The wider context of Japan’s (in my opinion) highly questionable whaling policy is addressed briefly, with a particularly interesting explanation of how the Japanese government effectively buy the support of poor countries to help influence voting on international whaling law. Water parks such as Seaworld are also targeted, as the driving force behind the global dolphin trade which results in thousands of dolphins being captured from the wild and forced to live in tanks. The examination of how dolphin meat is being widely sold in Japanese supermarkets advertised as other meat is less convincing, with little to no evidence being provided that this is the case.
So with the background explained, preparations complete and the cameras in place we’re ready for the final act, what really goes on in the cove? The secretly filmed footage is remarkable, brutal, bloody and shocking with the underwater shot of the water suddenly turning red being particularly powerful. The surprisingly high quality of the pictures and sound intensify the sequence, which is uncomfortably long for good reason. You see and hear everything, including a conversation between a few of the fishermen about their whaling conquests out at sea.
During the film O’Barry states that “if you’re not an activist you’re an inactivist”. It’s a great outlook. I would say I’m quite passionate about conservation and the protection of nature from exploitation, but what do I actually do about it in a practical sense? The answer is very little to nothing. Hopefully this film will inspire some inactivists such as myself into taking a more practical action-orientated approach to environmental issues.
Watch this film, and while you do ask yourself one question…. Would I have the self-restraint not to punch “private space” in the face?