This Thing Called Courage

Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Must-See Documentary: The Cove

I had a rare and wonderful quiet night at home with a friend last night, and though I seldom watch television, we tuned in to Jeopardy while we ate. A little bit of channel-surfing during the mostly unbearable commercials (it's amazing how inanely annoying they are if you've been away from them for a while) told us, in breathy pants, that Oscar Season was nearly upon us. Lost in the gush about Avatar, and-who-will-wear-which-designer, is the fact that two Oscar-nominated documentaries are really must-sees-- if you can find them. One is the truth-telling Food, Inc., a mystery of sorts as Michael Pollan and others try to solve the mystery of what's on our dinner plate and how it got there. As it turns out, in most cases, what's on our plate is a health-, human-rights-, and environmental-nightmare. The second documentary is The Cove, a heart-wrenching, enraging documentary on Japan's dirty little secret involving the slaughter of 25,000 dolphins a year.

The article below originally appeared last August in AlterNet, but bears re-reading as Oscar season appears. See both movies in you can-- and go see Fresh while you're at it--and at the end of the article below, there's a list of things people can do if they are moved to action.

Ric O'Barry almost looks crazy. He is driving a car, with a mask over his mouth, crouching low in his seat, hoping not to be recognized.

If the authorities catch him, there's no telling what will happen to him. He's cruising through the misty streets of Taiji, Japan, a small town with a really big secret, he says. And it's a secret that the town's fishermen want to hide from the rest of the world at all costs.

This is how the documentary, The Cove, opens. And it turns out O'Barry is not crazy, he's on a mission -- probably one of the most important in the history of conservation. And it's personal.

He used to be a world-famous dolphin trainer. He captured and trained the five dolphins who played Flipper in the hit TV show of the same name. The show's popularity sparked a dolphin craze that has continued since the 1960s and has grown into $2 billion industry in the U.S. alone.

But while places like Sea World might be raking in the cash, O'Barry has spend the last 35 years trying to end dolphin captivity -- having had a change of heart after the tragic suicide of one of the main dolphins in Flipper. (If you want to know how a dolphin can commit suicide, you'll have to see The Cove.)

It turns out these intelligent and charismatic creatures don't do well in captivity -- half of all captive dolphins die within two years. They're used to swimming 40 miles a day, diving hundreds of feet deep and hanging out with their close-knit pod. Apparently jumping through hoops and swimming with tourists in a pool just isn't an adequate substitute.

But that hasn't stopped the plethora of marine theme parks and the horrific industry that has grown to support it. It has, however, inspired O'Barry to expose some of the worst of it, which is why he's hiding out in Taiji.

In this quaint fishing village, each fall, tens of thousands of migrating dolphins are captured, some of which are sold into captivity (for up to $150,000 a piece), and the rest are taken to a secret cove and slaughtered (to be sold for their meat -- sometimes falsely described as whale meat).

O'Barry wants the world to see what's happening in Taiji, and that means staying out of reach of the authorities and the local fishermen, who would very much like him arrested, deported, or worse. It also means trying to get into the secret cove with a camera.

The film kicks off with O'Barry joining forces with filmmaker Louis Psihoyos and the Ocean Preservation Society to put together a dream team of sorts that will get them into the cove and capture the horror on film.

It's reminiscent of Oceans 11 to be sure -- there are underwater sound and camera experts, special-effects artists to hide microphones in fake rocks, marine explorers and world-reknown free divers who help get the gear into place, and unmanned drones.

There are secret night-time missions, viewed on film with military-grade thermal cameras, where the crew is constantly dodging either the police, the Japanese mafia or irate fishermen.

It's a thriller. You're perched on the edge of your seat wondering if they'll get the footage they need or if they'll get nabbed. Sometimes it's so engaging, you forget to wonder if you actually want to see what they're trying to tape. And that's the film's greatest accomplishment.

Mixed in to the night-vision goggles and camouflage narrative are the images and interviews that make you realize why these people are risking their lives to make a movie: to save some dolphins.

These creatures are incredible. And the filmmaking is incredibly beautiful -- like Winged Migration with cetaceans. If they get the footage, you're going to want to see it, you're going to have to, because of the injustice of it.

There's also another layer of complexity to the film. There's the political stuff. Commercial whaling was outlawed in 1986, but dolphins -- members of the same family -- aren't protected.

The International Whaling Commission deems them "small cetaceans" and, apparently, therefore worthy of slaughter. Japan, which has tripled its dolphin killing since the ban, kills 23,000 dolphins each year, and thousands more are sold into captivity.

The country is also trying to overturn the whaling ban, and as the film shows, it is offering financial support to small, bankrupt nations to get folks on their side.

And there's also some serious health issues. Dolphins, sadly, are toxic-waste dumps these days. Their meat has been shown to have up to 1,000 times the allowable level of mercury. Eating their meat could be hazardous to a person's health, but often consumers may not know they're eating it.

The Cove shows that dolphin meat is sometimes passed off as whale meat -- and was even being served in school lunches in Taiji.

All this might seem a little depressing. And in some ways, it is. But you won't notice until after the film, because you'll be so blown away by what's on screen. It will captivate you, it will break your heart, and hopefully, it will make you jump out of your seat and help.

And if so, here's what you can do: