Illuminating 'The Cove': Louie Psihoyos' activist documentary shines light on dolphin slaughter
The extraordinary documentary The Cove is a celebration of dolphins and a damnation of Japanese policies and indifference that allow the unconscionable slaughter of these exceptional animals and the proliferation of mercury poisoning in humans who are tricked into eating toxic dolphin meat disguised as whale meat.
Amongst other environmentally related themes, The Cove is specifically about the horrific slaying of dolphins in the small, picturesque tourist hub of Taiji, in the southern part of the Japanese archipelago. Its grim theme aside, the film is immensely entertaining—a kind of eco-adventure thriller—and is sure to be regarded as one of the most important films of 2009.
The Cove also looms as one of the major commercial successes for the documentary genre this year. Suggesting a strong critical response, the film has already won a slew of audience awards at festivals like Sundance, Seattle, HotDocs, Toronto, Sydney, Nantucket, Silverdocs, Newport and, just recently, the Maui Film Festival.
With Roadside Attractions handling the theatrical release, Lionsgate the DVD and Participant Media overseeing the social-action aspects, The Cove will reel in audiences and not a little controversy. But director Louie Psihoyos and the Cove team are most hopeful that the film will heighten awareness of the tragic plight of the dolphins in Taiji specifically and, globally, as captives for amusement shows and as examples of the overall depletion of fish stock in the world’s oceans.
Psihoyos’ journey to the project was the result of personal concerns, skills, friends in good places, dogged journalistic curiosity, and an adventurer’s thirst for the chase that led to the first-ever filming of the ritual dolphin slaughter in Taiji’s once ultra-secret cove.
Also noteworthy is that Psihoyos, a celebrated still photographer, makes his directorial debut with the film. “I had never made a film before but took a three-day crash course in filmmaking a few years ago with a local filmmaker in Boulder. I learned on a prosumer HD camera and then we graduated to Sony HD.”
Prior to undertaking The Cove, Psihoyos had made his reputation as one of the top still photographers in the world. Hired directly out of college to shoot for National Geographic, he spent 18 years with the iconic yellow-bordered, nature and location-focused magazine.
Continuing in the “still life,” he has been under contract with Fortune magazine and shot hundreds of covers for other magazines including Smithsonian, Discover, GEO, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, New York, Sports Illustrated and Rock and Ice. His work has also been seen on The Discovery Channel, National Geographic Television and The History Channel. And museums and private collectors around the world collect his photography.
But while his early years with National Geographic hooked him on geographic and environmental concerns, it was Psihoyos’ love of diving and diving photography that afforded a lens on what was happening to the world’s waters—the planet’s crucial resource.
In 2005, when the urge to motivate change really hit, he created the non-profit organization The Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) with tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jim Clark as a way of affording the public and media a window into the beauty as well as the destruction of the oceans.
The Cove, the inaugural OPS film project, is an unabashed celebration of dolphins, highly sentient and highly intelligent mammals, famously exploited for entertainment in the worldwide TV show “Flipper” and now, as captives, in amusement and theme parks worldwide. But it’s their routine luring, trapping and slaughter in Taiji that is the film’s central concern.
The Taiji authorities have worked hard and ruthlessly to keep what goes on in the cove a secret. After all, dolphins caught that are suitable for shows can bring as much as $150,000 each. Unlucky ones that are slaughtered can earn their killer fishermen from $600 to $1,000 each.
Psihoyos learned of the awful ritual from former “Flipper” producer turned dolphin activist Ric O’Barry after seeking him out at a San Diego convention. Psihoyos was hoping to catch O’Barry as the advertised keynote speaker, but convention sponsor Sea World ultimately banned O’Barry because he is so vocal against their captivity.
Disappointed by his non-appearance, Psihoyos made a blind call to O’Barry. Recalling the conversation, Psihoyos says that “I couldn’t imagine any civilization killing dolphins, so Richard invited me along the following week to see the little town with the big secret.” Clark also joined up.
The eponymous cove is off-limits to outsiders, yet, paradoxically, is located in the center of Taiji. In spite of its location, it is carefully guarded and cut off from the public.
Another paradox is that Taiji, with so many dolphin monuments and statues, pretends to celebrate the species. Observes Psihoyos, “Our first impression was that the town is right out of a Stephen King novel. Outwardly the town is about reverence and respect and love of dolphins and whales, but what was happening in the secret cove told a horror story that I was determined to get.”
What Psihoyos saw was that outsiders were not permitted to see. It was then that the idea struck to try to infiltrate the cove and film what had eluded others like the BBC and Time magazine. Thus, thanks to O’Barry’s invitation, the big adventure—and the Cove movie—began.
O’Barry, who figures prominently in the doc, explains that he spent ten years as dolphin trainer for the “Flipper” show before going to the other side where, for 38 years, he has been active on behalf of dolphins, campaigning tirelessly against their captivity and extolling the virtues of these amazing yet sadly endangered creatures.
The Cove makes clear that beyond the dolphins’ high intelligence, deep emotional capabilities and preternatural physical dexterity as exemplified by their huge leaps and swimming speed, they are the only wild animals known to come to the rescue of humans. They are also highly communicative and their sonar capabilities—their unique ability to hear and detect—are unique.
But The Cove is hardly just a nature piece extolling the dolphins. What makes it the entertainment powerhouse it is and gives the film its structure and momentum is the adventure surrounding the filmmaking team’s infiltration of the Taiji cove so that the unconscionable slaughter can be filmed for the first time and shown to the world.
This “mission” to get past the Taiji perps—local government, police, guards and the bullying, murdering fishermen—has aspects of Ocean’s Eleven and even Man on Wire. Says Psihoyos, “We had the same variety of characters as Ocean’s Eleven, the same crazies, techies, millionaires, etc., but a very different model because we are on the documentary side. It wasn’t just about getting into the cove. We are a vehicle for change, for informing people about what’s going on there and in the oceans. It was about our struggle to get footage to put all this across.”
Besides the plight of the dolphins regularly trapped and slaughtered in the cove, the film addresses other themes, including growing mercury content in food and the mounting danger of mercury poisoning in humans, depletion of the oceans, the failings of the International Whaling Commission, the tragedy of whale hunting, and the Japanese government’s cover-up and promotion of toxic dolphin meat as edible.
But the main focus is on the stealth filming in Taiji. Notes Psihoyos, “About 23,000 a year were killed [at the cove] until recently. Now it’s less only because there are fewer dolphins as a result of the slaughters. The Japanese government is going through dolphin stock like they’re going through whaling stock.”
He provides some insight into Japanese thinking: “The Japanese cannot rely so much on land for their food, so they look to the oceans, to the sea, for their nourishment and the government promotes the notion that the oceans are sustainable, which they are not. I did have an interesting encounter on a long plane ride when I met by chance the guy in Japan in charge of all slaughter of dolphins and whales. He’s aware of the horror that is happening, but he’s worried about food security for his country.”
For The Cove, the “overriding, first achievable goal,” he says, would be to shut down the infamous cove and its activities. “This won’t happen because the government is offended by the slaughter,” he says, “but that it realizes the very real danger of mercury poisoning and the harm it is doing in promoting and serving toxic meat to consumers. A second goal with the film is to make people think twice about going to an animal park where these beautiful, sentient animals are trained to do stupid tricks.”
As a documentary and one fraught with so many important themes, The Cove hardly suggests the term “buddy movie,” but Psihoyos’ buddies were instrumental in making the film possible.
For years, Cove executive producer and entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jim Clark, perhaps best known as the force behind Silicon Graphics, Netscape and WebMD, has been Psihoyos’ diving “buddy.” Explains Psihoyos, “As divers, we’ve together seen the degradation of oceans. Jim thought up the idea of starting OPS, which was founded and now headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, as both an organization and studio. Asked about addressing oceanic concerns at a landlocked home base and film studio, Psihoyos jokes, “We’re conveniently located between two oceans.”
Clark was with Psihoyos when he first went to Taiji with Ric O’Barry and, most importantly, agreed to get on board and provide the initial funding when the idea struck Psihoyos to do the film.
Charles Hambleton, Psihoyos’ clandestine-operations director and first assistant on the film, is his “best buddy.” On a subsequent trip to Taiji after it was decided to make a film, “he and I went to the Taiji mayor’s office for cooperation. They told us ‘No’ and were kind of threatening us. We feared we’d come away empty-handed like everyone else who has tried to film the cove. So it was Charles’ idea to bring in the military-grade thermal camera that was rigged for shooting video.”
Other “buddies” on the film include actor/director/producer Fisher Stevens, producer of The Cove who is a diver and knew Clark and Psihoyos, and Boulder native Paula DuPré Pesmen, the other Cove producer, who worked on many big Hollywood projects before joining OPS. Psihoyos describes Stevens as “the closer” because he brought in the finishing team for the film and Pesmen “the pitcher,” because “she made sure we were being economically responsible.”
But quick to credit the entire Cove team, including writer Mark Monroe, editor Geoffrey Richman and composer J. Ralph, Psihoyos says, “Everyone was instrumental. As John Ford is reputed to have said, ‘Making a film is like painting a picture with an army.’”
Participant Media came on board after its entrepreneur founder Jeff Skoll saw a screening at “buddy” Norman Lear’s house a month after the film’s Sundance premiere.
Like the best of “buddy” films and in spite of its serious subject matter, The Cove is powerful entertainment. The concerns are contemporary and immediate, but much of its style is inspired by the best in filmmaking tradition.
O’Barry and the many dolphins seen, including archival material of those used in the “Flipper” series, are among the film’s most memorable heroes. The villains are equally vivid, whether they are the brutal, aggressive Taiji fishermen involved in the killings, the conspiring authorities or the International Whaling Commission lawyer Dan Goodman, a seemingly toady mouthpiece for IWC interests. About Goodman, Psihoyos comments, “What a spin doctor! He’s out of central casting.”
But Psihoyos is careful to note that the IWC isn’t all bad. “They are half and half, both good guys and evil.”
Also in the traditional vein, The Cove is the story of a journey, really two journeys. One is that of O’Barry, who is prominently onscreen in the archival footage from his decade with “Flipper” to his reborn, 38 years as an activist fighting dolphin captivity and working for their welfare.
But the film’s biggest journey is that of Psihoyos’ team, who successfully plan and execute their nighttime “Mission: Important.” Ingeniously and with great difficulty, the team enabled the first footage of the cove activity. They included several top free-divers who helped set up the underwater cameras and hydrophones, and special-effects wizards at Kerner Optical/Industrial Light & Magic, who built rock casings to hide cameras.
The cameras, which were also crucial to keeping the team from getting arrested, included state-of-the-art, military-grade thermal cameras for night viewing and gyro-stabilized cameras for the aerial footage from helicopters. Psihoyos calls the thermal cameras “most interesting because they gave us the security of knowing where the guards and police were.” The thermal footage is black-and-white, whereas the more conventional night-vision camera delivered green-tinted material. Psihoyos explains the difference between these cameras, which both capture footage in the dark: “The regular night-vision camera uses a different spectrum of wavelength of light, while the thermal uses heat.”
“The police,” recalls Psihoyos, “were constantly on the hunt for us,” but on the all-crucial night of the shoot, he and covert-operations director Hambleton, in what was one of the filmmaker’s scariest moments, managed to escape them by driving through a tiny mountain road.
The Cove doesn’t just generate solid entertainment and crucial awareness of critical issues. It also provokes questions like: Might the final bloody scene of the dolphin slaughter be too tough for many viewers who are too young or already so sensitive to human abuse of helpless animals?
Psihoyos reminds that the film is rated PG-13. “We could have made it unwatchable,” he says, “but some of the sequences of the killing are beautiful in a horrific way—so strange and surreal, like a Bosch painting.”
Other questions arise. When, for instance, will The Cove be shown in Japan? Psihoyos says the film is being considered for the Tokyo Film Festival but notes that the director of the festival just wrote to say that the event is controlled by the government. The filmmaker is also working with filmmaker/producer/distributor Luc Besson, who picked the film up for France and has distribution partners in Japan that he’s showing the movie to. Says Psihoyos, “One way or another, we’ll get it shown in Japan.”
The director is quick to point out that the general population of Japan appears to be ignorant of what is going on with the dolphins. “The Japanese we show the film to are shocked and embarrassed. And we’ve done about 100 random interviews with people about the slaughter and no one seems to know what is going on.”
But what is going on in Taiji these days? “They’re getting very nervous,” Psihoyos reports. “It’s now even harder to penetrate the cove because there are taller fences and more security.”
And what about the mercury poisoning from eating toxic fish (dolphins especially) that has already felled the Japanese village of Minimata? Psihoyos knows something about this because he too has some degree of poisoning. It has shown up in his blood and he also has the symptomatic hearing loss.
“What’s interesting,” he says, “is that from so many long conversations we recorded [surreptitiously] with the Taiji fishermen, it’s obvious that they are riddled with mercury themselves. Their brains are addled and their perceptions very much affected. They are villains and very ignorant and we’re not going to win over them or the other Japanese on any animal-rights issue. But we can win on the toxic-meat issue because that is very, very real. The Mayor of Taiji recently mandated that everyone in the town get tested for mercury poisoning, but the town has not released the results.”
With its first project, if not the issues, behind it, Psihoyos and Clark’s Oceanic Preservation Society is looking at several other projects in the works, the first being about how ocean reefs are disappearing. Psihoyos states, “There have been five major extinctions and reef extinction is the sixth.”
But for now, all eyes will be on The Cove, set to begin its run July 31 in Los Angeles and New York. With the release, many will be thinking more and more about the plight of dolphins and, for better or worse, may be giving second thoughts to our Japanese friends, casual and intimate and in low and high places. By virtue of geography and the painful facts presented in The Cove, they are the ones who must begin exacting the change so desperately needed, whether by speaking out or helping to change their country’s evil, harmful policies.