The Cove

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Here’s a weird piece of information. My uncle thought that dolphins were aliens from another planet. He thought that they were smarter than humans. Now bear in mind, this is a man that every Christmas would pass out in our armchair, drooling Carlsberg Special Brew from the corner of his mouth as he respired loudly while wearing a silly paper hat. I’m not saying that alcohol may have prejudiced his thinking, but...

Regardless of whether you think dolphins are Flippers from Mars or not, you have to admit that they’re pretty cool. They swim in the ocean, they protect sailors from sharks and Krakens, they make sick children and fat Floridians smile, they jump through hoops, they help the Navy. Is there anything dolphins can’t do?

Well, aside from writing literature and running the 100m, it seems like dolphins’ greatest failure is not escaping the clutches of the Japanese.

Ah, the Japanese. They’ve given us so many great things over the years – quality electronics, cars and videogames, and of course Kurosawa, Mishima, Ozu and Maru. But on the opposite end of the spectrum they’ve given us humiliation TV and lots of depraved porn; sickening stuff that’s so ashamed of itself that the cocks have spontaneously self-pixelated. Honestly, if I were a cute young girl on a Japanese train wearing an innocent little blouse and plaid skirt, I’d be worried that the very second that the doors closed a hundred blurry penises would be thrust in my face.

Japan’s also a nation that seems determined to eat and kill everything in sight. They harpoon whales and slaughter horses with reckless abandon. And then for a real good laugh, they spear some dolphins.

It takes a while to get to it, but the final part of The Cove packs a fair wallop. After lots of bullshit from various people (there’s talk about being able to scientifically kill the dolphins – apparently they can be killed with a single blow), we see how it really happens. Men in boats with spears methodically stab the dolphins. There’s no science to it. There’s no method. Men just hack and stab at the water until everything stops moving. But it takes a long time to achieve this. The water turns red and dolphins thrash in the water. It seems like the stupidest, most barbaric, most inefficient way to kill something.

The only reason that this footage is captured is because of the work of a group of individuals who decide to expose the killing that is taking place – the slaughter occurs out of sight and anyone who tries to take a look is either intimidated or encounters physical violence. It takes an undercover operation to bring it to light.

The surveillance operation feels like part spy thriller, part heist movie. There’s lots of night-vision and there’s more than one close call. In one scene, as the guys and girls bug the cove, some guards come along to intercept them. The way it’s filmed, you’re never quite sure how close the guards get, but the scene certainly gets the pulse racing. After all, this is a country that legally allows its police officers to torture suspects, so you can more than understand their rush to get out of Dodge.

One reason why the movie feels so much like a spy thriller is because the movie industry actually gets involved with the operation – a number of the team are special effects guys. So they deploy all kinds of cool ways of bugging the cove. My favourite are the cameras that are hidden in fake rocks that are planted in the cliffs.

But the real hero of the picture is Ric O’Barry. Formerly a dolphin capturer and trainer, and largely responsible for the success of the TV show Flipper, he’s turned his life around and now works to free captive dolphins. Largely responsible for this transformation is his belief that one of the real life Flippers committed suicide in his arms – unlike humans, dolphins have to consciously choose to breathe and the one in question just decided to stop. Understandably, this devastated him and he’s been a changed man since.

When we first see Ric O’Barry, he seems crazy. He wears masks over his face, he’s paranoid about cars following him and he’s constantly shifting back and forth. But it quickly becomes clear that this paranoia is justified. Harassed at every turn by policemen and angry fishermen, he survives through a sheer act of will. It’s truly impressive to see a man that is this dedicated to his cause. O’Barry won’t be intimidated and he won’t be swayed. Time after time men try and provoke him into reacting against them so that they can get him locked up, but he stays strong. And in some parts it even becomes amusing. For the hundredth time some cops decide to have a chat with him. They want to know whether he’s working with anyone to expose the activity in the cove but instead he starts talking about mercury levels. It’s obvious that they’ve heard this hundreds of times before and rather than listen to him again they quickly make their excuses and leave. It’s a brilliant piece of chess from O’Barry – he plays up to his image as a crackpot in order to protect everyone else.

But the mercury point is a big issue. Dolphin meat contains large levels of mercury and is poisonous to humans. And yet a Japanese school feeds its children dolphin meat and packets and packets of the stuff finds its way onto supermarket shelves. Anyone who eats it is slowly being killed.

The majority of the populace seems to be unaware of the dolphin killing practice but the politicians jealously protect it. They claim that it’s a form of pest control. In reality, it’s because the activity makes money – any dolphin that can be trained can fetch up to $150,000 and the rest can be slaughtered and sold for meat. And Japan gets away with it because they buy votes at the International Whaling Commission and because they don’t listen to what anyone else says.

The bubble is burst, though, when O’Barry bursts into a meeting with a video screen strapped to his chest. The video shows footage of the slaughter and O’Barry makes sure that everyone sees it. It brilliantly cuts through the bullshit and it rams the point of the movie home. There’s no ambiguity or objectivity here. This practice is fucking wrong.

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  1. I watched the Cove, really liked it, and show it to my high school students, but my overall feeling is disappointment with it. It's a movie made by Westerners for Westerners, and what does that it achieve?

    The problem with The Cove is that it doesn't accomplish anything by appealing to a Western audience, because that just heightens the Japanese feeling that it's "our culture" vs. "their culture." It's a delicate matter to appeal this kind of question to Japanese people, and Ric and co seem to be unstudied. Maybe its out of their control, but I think they could have handled the tone of the film and its marketing better so that it seemed more sympathetic to the Japanese group identity. Then, more Japanese would have had a chance or even just an interest in seeing it, and fewer conservatives would have succeeded in boycotting theaters that show it. Even if The Cove is not an attack on Japanese culture or people, its certainly perceived that way here (I live in Japan).

    I guess to sum it up,: its cool that we Westerners like the movie and appreciate its message, but it's a failure of a project if no Japanese see it.

    Good review, but I think critics should take this intercultural aspect into greater consideration.