“You are either an activist or an inactivist,” says director Louie Psihoyos in the much-lauded Acadamy Award-winning documentary The Cove, about the secret slaughtering of dolphins in a Japanese resort town. It’s a powerful statement that has stirred some controversy for its Bush-era “for us or against us” attitude, but, as man’s assault, intentional or otherwise, on the wild — and ultimately himself — continues to reach new levels of consequence, it is rightfully the core message of the film.
In tandem with a pivotal International Whaling Commisson meeting, The Cove is scheduled to begin screening this week in select Japanese cities to audiences that are largely unaware of the routine massacre of dolphins and whales, the cheap, mercury-laden meat of which is hidden in food products and school lunches throughout their country.
The Cove’s chief protagonist, uber-activist and marine mammal specialist for the Earth Island Institute, Richard O’Barry, spent the early part of his adult life training the dolphins that collectively were known as “Flipper” on the hit TV show. In the film, an emotional O’Barry recalls when one of the dolphin actors, “Kathy,” committed suicide in his arms, to escape her life in a marine park — and that’s when everything for O’Barry changed. In that moment, he embarked on a lifelong mission to free these highly intelligent, sensitive creatures from captivity. His journey ultimately led to numerous nights in jail (at one point someone asks him how many times he’s been arrested. His reply: “This month?”) and to Taiji, Japan, a lush, picturesque coastal village with a dark secret. In a highly secure, remote cove there, amid images of smiling cetaceans on road signs, boats and storefronts, adult and baby dolphins by the hundreds were (and still are) being corralled and killed by local fisherman.
With local police continually on his tail and armed guards along the periphery of the cove, O’Barry realized that he needed help, and commenced to assemble a crack team of big-hearted experts in their respective fields: divers, filmmakers, prop builders and an adrenaline-addicted stuntman. Together, they devised a covert operation to uncover the evildoings in the hidden cove, with the hopes of bringing it to, if not a screeching halt, at least a steady deceleration.
The plan unfolds with all the suspense and intrigue of a Bond movie —cameras hidden in faux rocks, strategically placed microphones, infrared technology, rock climbing — but the crewmembers are not emotionally prepared for what the guerilla film footage will reveal: a literal bloodbath against a soundtrack of confused, shrieking mammals being stabbed to death with harpoons.
The fishermen attempt to justify the wanton killing by hiding behind the auspices of an age-old culture. But when ordinary Japanese are questioned about it, their dismay tells the real tale: the whaling industry — especially where dolphins are concerned — is nothing more than an unregulated, greed-driven business that has no bearing on the people’s cultural traditions. Comparisons to America’s cattle industry are also drawn, but where whaling differs from cattle farming, is that the Japanese are not mass consumers of whale meat, and the consumption of dolphin meat, is for them, akin to horsemeat in the West. While no one wants to argue the value of one living creature above another, we are shown too many examples of the dolphin’s high intelligence and compassion not to at least question the motives of those who are threatening its survival.
Is the primary motive behind the The Cove to abolish whaling entirely? Of course. But the film’s secondary message is equally important and urgent: whether it’s dolphins or pelicans, starving children or human trafficking, be outraged, and let the outrage fuel the actions that lead to change. Plans are under way to adapt The Cove into an unscripted series for Animal Planet to be called Dolphin Warriors, that continues where the film left off. Look for it to debut sometime this summer.
The Cove is presented by the Ventura Film Festival on Saturday, July 3, 6 p.m. at the Century 10 Theaters, 555 E. Main St., Ventura. For a complete schedule of screenings, please visit www.venturafilmfestival.org.