The Cove begins at night. The filmmakers—including narrator and director Louie Psihoyos—are driving in the dark, the road illuminated by headlights, the crew by night-vision green. Dressed in black, with ski caps and grim faces, they rock in the car as a siren sounds in the distance. “I do want to say that we tried to do this story legally,” says Psihoyos. “I thought of all the possibilities of what could happen, and it kept me up at night.” Once they make their way inside their destination—a cove in Taiji, Japan, fenced off and locked down—the reason for their risk-taking becomes clear. Their illegal activity is designed to document the massacre of dolphins—an undertaking that is at once routine and horrific.
Part adventure story and part exposé, The Cove is now nominated for an Oscar and screening 8 February at Stranger Than Fiction (followed by a Q&A with Psihoyos). Inspired and primarily guided by activist Ric O’Barry, the film reveals what happens at night in Taiji, “a little town with a really big secret.” O’Barry reports that the capture and slaughter of thousands of dolphins goes on each year because it has remained hidden. The fishermen of Taiji make their money as they can, selling live dolphins to marine worlds and sea shows or dead dolphins, passed off as tuna.
O’Barry’s outrage has taken shape over decades, and his current resistance resembles guerrilla warfare. (At first, Psihoyos confesses, he thought he was setting off on a quest led by “this paranoid guy,” who regularly wore a surgical mask and sunglasses as he drove around Taiji.) To make the case against the dolphin killers, he insists, his own 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.”
Even as Psihoyos and his crew embark on this mission, helping O’Barry to expose “the truth,” the documentary also exposes how the truth can be constructed. It’s an ingenious premise, really, for as the film reveals its process—the assembly of undercover gear and hour-by-hour schemes, the work by participants ranging from movie special effects experts to free divers to underwater camera operators—it invites viewers to consider how the truth is at once elusive and managed, not a single object to be discovered, but a series of stories to be confronted, contemplated, and understood.
O’Barry starts from a particular place in the film’s 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 a guard whom the filmmakers call “Private Space,” after the English phrase he shouts at them in order to stop their movement inside.
In between the exciting nighttime NVG sequences that show the team setting up equipment and being nearly captured, the film includes interviews with persuasive experts and not-so-convincing 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, lobbying 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 is acutely visible. The film has come to this truth, so devastating and so moving, by means illegal and exciting, elaborately faked and cunningly inventive.