Richard O'Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Simon Hutchins, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Kirk Krack, Charles Hambleton, Joseph Chisholm, David Rastovich
US theatrical: 31 Jul 2009 (Limited release)
A couple of years ago, Hayden Panettierre appeared on TV in tears. Identified as a “committed marine conservationist,” she wore a wetsuit and described her determination to protect the “innocents”—that is, the dolphins of Taiji, Wakayama she and her fellow protestors meant to save from slaughter.
The video of the Heroes star/Candies promoter appeared everywhere in November 2007, on television and the net. Among her opponents on the shore was a man, belligerent and intimidating, who pushed his body up against the cameras and forced protestors to back away. Now, in the documentary The Cove, that scary man has a name, of sorts. “Private Space” is so labeled for the phrase he repeated so frequently to the invaders. Just so, he appears in Louie Psihoyos’ documentary more than once, his face pushed toward the camera so it looms and looks distorted. “Private space!” he grunts and yells, “Private space!”
This notion of property is central to The Cove, sustaining the Japanese dolphin industry despite international protests. According to Ric O’Barry, the film’s primary narrator and guiding force, the capture and slaughter of thousands of dolphins goes on each year because it has remained hidden. Those who have access to property and so, authority—like the fishermen of Taiji—assert their right to do with it as they please, whether that means selling live dolphins to marine-worlds or dead ones to serve as fake tuna. By the same token, says O’Barry, those without property or authority, are pressed into a kind of guerrilla warfare. To make the case against the dolphin killers, O’Barry insists, his face obscured by a mask as he drives near the cove where the killings take place, “We need to get in there and film exactly what happens. We need to know the truth.”
This raises another important notion for the documentary. The “truth” is notoriously malleable, depending on who tells it and who hears it. To its credit, the film exposes how the truth can be constructed even as it also participates in its construction. O’Barry starts from a particular place in this construction, as he was one of the original trainers for the TV show Flipper, which generated a public interest in dolphins as entertainment, paving the way for the aquatic parks that now purchase and, in O’Barry’s eyes, incarcerate and by definition torture dolphins. Because of his history, he has a specific understanding of the mammals’ legendary intelligence. He tells the story of Kathy, one of the dolphins who played Flipper back in the ‘60s, whom he says essentially committed suicide in his arms, unable to endure her imprisonment and forced labor any longer. With tears in his eyes even 35 years after that trauma, O’Barry recalls that as of that moment, freeing dolphins became his mission in life.
A member of the Ocean Preservation Society, Psihoyos is an enthusiastic partner in that mission, seeing the exposure of the abuse of dolphins as the best way to stop it. O’Barry has spoken out repeatedly over the years, been arrested and appeared in brief news clips. Now, he and Psihoyos hope that explicit footage of the slaughter will constitute a more effective intervention in the industry. They assemble a crew that includes champion free divers Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack, and head of “clandestine operations” Charles Hambleton, they ship in cameras (hidden in fake rocks, designed by ILM’s effects experts), and set up a surveillance operation—even as they are also monitored by the fisherman and industry employees like “Private Space.”
In between the exciting nighttime NVG sequences of the team setting up equipment and being nearly captured, the film includes interviews with persuasive sea life experts and not-so-convincing local Japanese authorities. When the latter begin denying what you’ve seen on camera or asserting the safety of school lunch programs that include mercury-rich dolphin meat, the film has more than made its case against the bad guys. The film submits that the Japanese government has a part in the slaughter. Resisting what it sees as invasive Western jurisdiction, Japan lobbies against limits on industry activity by the International Whaling Commission, specifically by buying votes from impoverished Caribbean nations.
With this plethora of villains, the film doesn’t have to work too hard to solicit anger against the brutal practice and the longstanding, multi-tiered cover-up. The Cove‘s plainly subjective and passionate approach is of a piece with other recent documentaries featuring charismatic crusaders and clever storytelling. Its story is hard to debate, once it gets to the much anticipated climax, footage from the hidden cameras that reveals the screaming dolphins herded into the cove and the unbearably cruel methods of killing them, with spears and hammers. When the water is literally blood-red, the tragedy speaks for itself.