The controversial and award-winning doc about the fight of a group of environmentalists to stop the ritualistic killing of innocent dolphins is a very good documentary. Wholly riveting and revelatory, it's told with the same cinematic urgency as great action films. But the dogged preachiness of its agenda actually reduces the power of its message. In the final moments, the film continues to preach to the converted to the point where I was expecting someone to ask for donations on the way out of the theatre.
The Cove (2009) dir. Louie Psihoyos
By Alan Bacchus
Ric O’Barry is Mr. Dolphin. He has a long history with the treasured creature, starting out as the animal trainer on the TV show Flipper. But after a tragic eye-opening experience that revealed that dolphins possess an innate human-like self-awareness, O’Barry abandoned his profession and sought to free all dolphins on Earth from captivity.
Hell for dolphins happens to be Taijii, Japan, the hub for the international dolphin business. Whether it’s as meat secretly placed in Japanese children’s lunches or for Sea World shows, everything comes from Taijii. It’s a dirty business; so dirty that the nefarious fisherman annually enact a ritualistic slaughter unseen by all media and pedestrian eyes. Under the inspiration of O’Barry, a team of underwater photographers, ex-military ops personnel and even Hollywood special effects experts engage in high-stakes covert surveillance activities to secretly film and reveal to the world the illegal and inhumane practices against the dolphins.
It's a well constructed and polished piece, with all the credit due to the picture and sound editors, who, much like the covert procedural detail recounted in Oscar-winning Man on Wire, compiled the footage shot by these enviro-hijackers and cut together a film with the suspense, tone and pace of a thriller. And concurrent to the present-day story, the life history of O’Barry perfectly connects our fascination with dolphins with his own obsession of freeing them.
However, I couldn’t help but think that this barbaric ritual is made so horrific because the dolphins are, for lack of a better word, cute. The film tries to diffuse the counter-charge that this dolphin slaughter is simply part of Japanese culture by showing the shocked reactions to this information from everyday Japanese pedestrians. When contending the opinion that it’s not much different than the cattle or poultry industry in North America, which indeed has its own issues with animal barbarism, the film argues that dolphins are intelligent and self-aware and are capable of feeling pain and all the stress humans experience. Of course, if someone showed me graphic imagery of chickens getting their heads cut off, I would likely recoil in disgust as well.
This is why the shameless call to action, which spreads across the screen telling us how to support to the Oceanic Preservation Society, irked me. Were we just watching a 90-minute advertisement for a charitable organization?
The most poignant thing the filmmakers could have done would have been to point the cameras at the audience and ask us to rethink the animal slaughtering that occurs every day in our own countries – a slaughter, which, like the one in The Cove, is kept out of sight of regular people.
This is a system all non-vegans implicitly accept. As part of a meat-producing society, we silently accept and trust our regulatory bodies to ensure the animals we eat are treated as humanely as possible before being killed and shipped off to our grocery stores. But every once in a while we need to audit and examine these practices and point cameras at people who don’t want to be filmed. And so, this is why a film like The Cove is necessary.