Dir:- Louie Psihoyos
Feat:- Ric O’ Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Charles Hambleton, Simon Hutchins, Scott Baker, Roger Payne
The Cove is a documentary that utilises elements of a suspense-thriller to hammer home it’s highly polemical point. It takes a fairly ‘safe’ subject matter by addressing the ‘unnecessary slaughter’ of dolphins and other cetaceous marine life in the coastal fishing communities around Japan’s south-eastern seaboard, with a specific focus on the town of Taiji. The difficulties that such a documentary faces stem from the assumptions that are made at the film’s outset and which have created diametrically opposed and absolutely entrenched points of view. On the one side of the argument is the very ‘western’ notion that dolphins are somehow creatures that warrant a ‘special’ status, like that which has been given to whales, primarily due to scientific research suggesting the animals are highly intelligent and most likely self-aware. Conservationists are also heavily involved with trying to highlight the plight of cetaceous sea-life due to the supposedly diminishing population numbers amongst many species. The antithetical view is held by the Japanese (who are at the very least implicitly demonised in the film) and more accurately their fishing communities, who claim to be preserving an age-old tradition of whale and dolphin culling, as well as providing their troubled seafood industries with sources of fresh meat. The positions at the opening of the film are so clear that it seems unlikely that any serious dialogue between the two can occur. However, that isn’t really Psihoyos’s purpose.
The Cove isn’t a film designed to prompt discussion, but rather it is an awkwardly realised propaganda exercise (regardless of the legitimacy of Psihoyos and O’ Barry’s position it is still a blusteringly evangelical film) that utilises a whole retinue of sophisticated documentary techniques to maximise the impact of its blunt assault. Psihoyos was a National Geographic photographer and filmmaker and The Cove does, at times, seem like a reassuringly old-school television wildlife documentary. There is literally nothing within the film that demonstrates an interest in cinematic aesthetics, with perhaps the sole exception being the random mysterious beauty of the opening nightvision shots (particularly the shot through a road tunnel). Mixing up talking heads segments and stock nature footage, with a flashy chronicling of the logistics involved in making the film, director Psihoyos banks the whole venture on the power of its message, which by the film’s end seems like a direct call to action. Intriguingly it is the powerful simplicity of the final third of the movie that validates Psihoyos’s approach, whilst simultaneously pointing up the relative ineffectiveness of the rest of the film. There is a sense that The Cove could have been a far more compelling thirty minute television essay, in the mould of the Unreported World documentary series on UK Channel 4.
The central human protagonist in The Cove, and the agit-prop instigator, is former Dolphin catcher and trainer, Ric O’ Barry. Having worked on the television series Flipper back in the 1960’s, O’ Barry portrays himself as a man who has operated on both sides of the moral divide in this issue. As, inadvertently, one of the main popularisers of the Dolphin-themed sea centres and parks, that proved to be such popular forms of entertainment in the latter half of the twentieth century, O’ Barry is clearly wishing to be seen as someone who has accepted the error of his ways and can thus assume the moral superiority (and occasional sanctimoniousness) of the zealous convert. As activists go O’ Barry is a non-stop whirlwind of nervous energy, which, for a man who was approaching seventy during filming, deserves some plaudits. For the best part of 35 years O’Barry has devoted himself to liberating captive dolphins around the world. It is O’ Barry that fixates upon the dubious activities that take place in a hidden cove up the coastline from Taiji, and it is O’ Barry who ultimately persuades Psihoyos to take an active interest in what is actually occurring there. The local fishermen, police force and various government bureaucrats all appear to have had run-ins with O’Barry, who has even developed a curious relationship with some of the men, such as a fisherman/provocateur that he simply refers to as ‘Private Space’, after the two words in English that the man repeatedly barks at any protestor-interlopers.
The conspiracy theory ‘cover-up’ activities of Japanese fishermen and politicians, that O’ Barry and Psihoyos are explicitly stating exists (and which have their clearest expression in the Japanese lobby within the IWC), would seem to have a grain of truth when you consider the seeming counter-espionage tactics of these crazed, fanatical marine mammal murderers from the Land of the Rising Sun. Yet this ignores the sly patterning of the documentary that by the middle stages of the film has adopted an approach to the difficulties of filming in the cove itself, by detailing the efforts of the technical crew, including two studiously edited ‘covert operations’ to install recording equipment hidden within fake rocks. Psihoyos and his colleagues, like Simon Hutchins and Charlie Hambleton, are all members of the deep-sea diving fraternity and have founded an organisation, called the Oceanic Preservation Society, that seems to style itself as the brave, patrolling ‘special force’ of the waves. The entire first hour of the documentary effectively engages in a hybridised form of old-school animal rights activism (O’ Barry’s attempts at trying to develop a human empathy for the creatures, as well as his mantra-like factual assertions about the annual slaughter) and new media crusading (Psihoyos’s ‘covert ops’), that is further emphasised by the clash between old-fashioned NG documentary and ‘reality TV’ self-referentiality in the structure of the doc. Psihoyos has done a little bit of homework regarding documentary tropes, as the soundtrack by J. Ralph seems to echo Phillip Glass’s score to Errol Morris’s miscarriage of justice masterpiece The Thin Blue Line. It’s incessant, wave-like harmonies soundtrack even the blandest of meetings between Japanese police and O’ Barry, as if the score alone can inject these non-moments with intrigue and mystery. The coda to the movie is straight out of the Michael Moore bag of publicly humiliating agit-prop tricks, yet it is actually one of the more triumphant scenes in the film, as it channels the power of the preceding slaughter sequence into a justifiable, and precision directed, rage, rather than a flaccid outpouring of maudlin hysteria.
Fundamentally the movie fails to justify itself as a cinematic, feature-length work, and a large part of this is down to the harrowing strength of the images, the capture of which the filmmakers have supposedly made the goal of the project. Psihoyos is only working within a proscribed documentary framework that has become popular since the late 1990’s, in which the purpose of the documentary often becomes indistinguishable from a cannibalistic approach to documenting, foregrounding the mechanisms of the documentary’s creation and manufacturing from this a mythos of struggle and achievement. In many ways it is nothing more than a technically accomplished version of the questionable docudrama tactics of cinematic documentary pioneers like Robert J. Flaherty. Psihoyos, and his team, are not necessarily presenting a fiction, but they are undeniably engaged in a polemical simplification that rides along the wave of instinctive revulsion that many non-Japanese audience members will feel toward the very idea of killing Dolphins. The incessant need to inform, rather than to show, is just one of the indicators that this movie isn’t necessarily all that it is pretending to be. Psihoyos shows up the flaws in early sequences, in which he foolishly allows the freediving pair of Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack to inanely vocalise their horror at witnessing a dolphin dying in front of them, when he demonstrates the simple power of an image in the extended documenting of the carnage the fishermen unleash on the captive dolphins within the cove. In aiming at the feature-length documentary it has forced Psihoyos and his team to pad out a startling piece of film, with the kind of aimless talking head footage, crushingly obvious narration and visual dullness that has unfortunately become the default setting of modern documentary forms.
Aside from the difficulties of form there was also the issue of imbalance. Despite a few tacit attempts to show this fishing community as a microcosm disconnected from the wider Japanese population, there was a more pervasive sense, particularly in some of the talking heads that were chosen as interview subjects (such as the frankly outrageous former Antiguan representative to the IWC), that Japan was being set-up as a hate figure and bad guy in a Hollywood, black and white, morality play. This approach was frankly too easy for the filmmakers to take, particularly as the reasons as to why the Japanese want to protect the right to slaughter cetaceous sea-life seems so inscrutable to the outraged ‘western’ eyes behind the camera. The film refused to examine what props up this industry if, as the film claims, nobody knows what is done with a great bulk of the dolphin meat. Surely if there isn’t a complex of profits to be made somewhere then, no matter how important the tradition, it would have diminished in importance in recent years. The relatively low-key assault that the North American aquaparks and sea centres are subjected to, suggests a significant bias in the movie that no amount of inverted postcolonial/neocolonial criticism from West Indian academics will adequately haze out. Somewhat disconcertingly, the emotional distress of B-list Hollywood actress Hayden Panettiere and the ‘insightful’ wisdom of surf-dude Dave Rastovich is given more of a platform within the movie than most of Japanese society (only a slight exaggeration).
This is not to say, as has already been mentioned, that the movie does not have a more profound purpose (wishing to not only highlight the situation, but attempt to mobilise an active reaction), but much of the strength of the movie comes after an hour of footage that serves to trivialise or undermine that purpose. As much as Psihoyos manages to capture a compelling moment of seething revelation, when he confronts the Japanese bureaucrat, who offers up platitudinous explanations of Japanese maritime behaviour, using the undeniable film evidence of what is taking place in the cove, this doesn’t serve to define the movie in perhaps the same way that Errol Morris’s comparable gimmick did at the end of The Thin Blue Line. This failure is a direct result of poor, populist choices made earlier in the film. Aside from that brutally effective ‘candid camera’ capture of the slaughter, the most powerful impression that the film imparts is to do with the relentlessness of guilt. The dolphins may be The Cove’s mission statement and campaign, but the inadvertent focus of the movie becomes the former Flipper-trainer, O’ Barry, who has the slightly squirrely mania of a man still haunted by the guilt of his past misdeeds.