Little Cove of Horrorsby Brendon Bosworth / 30.03.2010
Watching violent murder isn’t easy. When you’ve been mentally primed for over an hour, psychologically nudged into knowing what to expect, it’s even worse. This is what makes the slaughter scene in The Cove so effective. The hidden cameras, strategically placed to capture the massacre of dolphins trapped in a small coastal cove, which is strictly off-limits to the public, in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji, bring the cruel reality home. Just like shooting fish in a barrel with RPGs, only more primitive, the fishermen paddle a few metres into the shallow water and mechanically spear the helpless mammals with handheld harpoons. The orgy of misery turns the water crimson and is augmented by the crazed twittering of the dying creatures, captured by underwater recording equipment, covertly installed at night by Mandy Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack, two of the world’s top free-divers. The bloodbath doesn’t go on too long, about five minutes, but it’s enough to stir the emotions. The sound of the confused and tortured dolphins really gets inside your head and provides a necessary dimension to the brutality.
Truly, it’s the lead up to the massacre, the investigative work of filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, Ric O’ Barry, extreme dolphin rights campaigner, and their team that is the centerpiece of this film. Armed with hi-tech surveillance cameras, night-vision recording equipment and other cloak and dagger apparatus they approach their task with a the-cause-is-bigger-then-me boldness that is essential to powerful documentary making. Whilst on their mission in Japan they are daily followed by who they believe to be police or thugs; O’ Barry is met and questioned in his hotel by the police on more than one occasion. Interviews with Japanese scientists and town counselors expose the dangerously high levels of mercury found in dolphin meat that is sold for consumption, often purposefully mislabeled as whale meat, and fed to local kids as part of a school feeding program. The dolphin trade is shown to be lucrative and far-reaching: according to the film, prime dolphins captured live in Taiji are sold to marine parks across the globe at roughly USD $100, 000 per head, whilst the murdered ones retail for about USD $600.
O’ Barry’s narrative is a strong lynchpin. In the ‘60s he was responsible for capturing and training the five dolphins that starred in the TV series Flipper. Back then it was the good life of fame and fortune, with little thought for the wellbeing of the show’s bottlenose cast, but when Cathy, one of the five, committed suicide in his arms (yes, apparently dolphins can commit suicide since unlike humans they do not breathe involuntarily but have to think about each breath that they take) he realised he was just one part of a sick system of slavery and profiteering. Come the ‘70s and he’d done a full turn-around: he’s been freeing captive dolphins and campaigning against the captive dolphin industry at large ever since. From the start I liked O’ Barry. He’s got that defiance that so many people lose as they settle into the comfort and complacency of old age. Seeing the grey-haired apostle march into the International Whaling Convention, where the Japanese delegates were trying to sweet-talk those present to lift the international ban on whaling, harping on about how whale killing has become more humane, and how whales are threatening fish stocks, with a TV screen playing footage from the massacre strapped to his chest, is a real ‘fuck yeah’ moment. (As it stands, dolphins are not protected by the same international legislation as whales and killing them is not illegal).
Cynics might find the scenes of happy dolphins frolicking in the waves and O’ Barry’s sentimental soliloquies about their human-like intelligence and insights into his life mission to undo the wrongs of his past a little saccharine flavoured, but it’s worth putting down the jaded veil for 92 minutes and taking it for what it is. The man is passionate about his cause. He’s truly remorseful for his past actions and feels responsible for kickstarting the worldwide performing dolphin industry. All those dolphins jumping through hoops, moonwalking on their tails and doing front-flips in front of popcorn guzzling spectators, living an artificial and depressive existence – that’s a heavy albatross to bear. The film does not hide the fact that it’s trying to humanize dolphins, with its focus on their intelligence and communicative abilities. The thinking being that the more the victims resemble humans the sorrier we’ll feel for them. It works, but might not prickle the souls of abattoir workers, seal hunters and sociopaths.
The film does not rely solely on the animal rights message. A death toll of 23 000 dolphins each year pales in comparison to the billions of animals murdered to keep burgers, steaks, chops and sausages in supermarket fridges. The focus on the toxic levels of mercury found in dolphin meat and the allegations that Japanese authorities have been allowing this meat to remain on shelves, whilst feeding it to school-going tykes, turns it into a human right’s issue as well.
Obviously, there are parts of The Cove that are dramatised for effect. But it’s shot in a way that creates a very believable tension. There are times when you think the cast are going to get into deep shit with the fishermen, who are portrayed as hard bastards throughout. I imagine some people will denigrate The Cove with arguments that the Japanese other is predictably framed as a morally bankrupt monster, whilst castigating the way the story is constructed so that the West rides in on its beneficent steed to expose the cruelty of the East. But such criticisms are shortsighted. The film does not vilify Japan as a nation, rather it points to a specific practice which doesn’t sit well with the film-makers. As advocates for the humane treatment of cetaceans they’re concerned about dolphins and the point is that Taiji is the site of this wholesale slaughter which has gone unreported for many years. Now it’s out in the open and playing on the mainstream circuit unlike 95 percent of activist documentaries which, no matter how important the message, are condemned to indie theatres and file-sharing networks. This could quite as easily be a film about the cruelties of battery farming, bull-fighting, elephant taming or dog-fighting. Someone from some country or culture is always going to come out looking like the bad guy. People can make up their own minds about whether dolphins deserve to be treated like this and might start thinking about other forms of animal cruelty and human-to-human cruelty as well.