An Oceanic Preservation Society presentation of a Jim Clark production, in association with Diamond Docs and SkyFish Films. Produced by Paula DuPre Pesmen, Fisher Stevens. Executive producer: Jim Clark. Co-producer: Olivia Ahnemann. Directed by Louie Psihoyos. Written by Mark Monroe.
With: Richard O’Barry, Louie Psihoyos, Simon Hutchins, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Kirk Krack, David Rastovich, Scott Baker.
This is The Cove’s second time in Japan, and each time it comes into town carrying lots of baggage. The first time through a few years ago, toting their massive amount of production equipment from the U.S. through Narita International airport the eight-person team, including ex-Flipper dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry, were here to document an annual event that largely remains hidden from the public’s eyes: the drive hunting of a couple thousand dolphins, porpoises and whales into a cove for sale and slaughter. With the help of hidden cameras, state-of-the-art equipment and military knowhow, this team, led by director Louie Psihoyos, was somehow able to outsmart a group of fisherman and the local police force in capturing on film what Psihoyos calls the “Citizen Kane of environmental documentaries.” While the former may not have been all that difficult, what is quickly proving to be an extremely arduous task for the crew now that the movie is out on the film festival circuit and has finally hit the Tokyo International Film Festival (T.I.F.F.) as an additional screening, is how to get it into theaters nationwide. Because now in his second time back Psihoyos is finding out it’s the cultural baggage that everyone seems up in arms about: Over-fishing! Culture! Whaling! Tradition! Selling Flipper! Bad Economy! Eating Flipper! Yummy!
The emotional baggage, which inevitably gets heavier and heavier as arguments escalate, results largely from ignorance. Ignorance of the Japanese population that this is going on in a sleepy little coastal town a couple hundred kilometers from Osaka. Ignorance that is fostered by a mass media fine with scuttling reports that are deemed too sensitive toward certain influential groups. Ignorance of what exactly is in the food on your plate. They say it’s bliss, but maybe that’s because more than anything else bliss is a nice fat bottom line to go with your sashimi and beer at the end of the day. So exactly what are the issues? With so many sides to choose from, HESO decided to try to talk to both the office of the mayor of the town of Taiji, Wakayama (where the film takes place), Mr. Kazutaka Sangen*, and the director of The Cove, Louie Psihoyos, in order to straighten it out for everyone.
* Mr. Sangen did not answer email requests for an interview nor did he manage to stay for the Q & A session after the screening of The Cove (yes, he and some of the fishermen did attend). Though HESO was forwarded the following press release concerning the history of Taiji:
- It is said that without talk of whaling the history of Taiji cannot be told. It was in 1675 that Wada clan first herded whales with nets, trapping them in Taiji’s natural coves and inventing the practice of drive hunting in the process, having developed this form of whaling based on ancient fishing practices. Thus the first whaling organization was formed by the Wadas and continued in this way until 1878 when poor seamanship, storms and the wrath of the giants of the sea resulted in a disaster that killed over 100 whalers and collapsed the industry. Yet due to the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war Taiji once again became a bustling whaling port replete with whale canneries, which supplied the war effort, ensuring its survival for decades to come. It more or less continued in this way until the 1988 IWC moratorium on commercial whaling barred Taiji from continuing the practice. Despite whaling for 350 or so years, it was only comparatively recently that Taiji was formally declared a town in the mid 1920s. Due to the natural bays in both areas large-scale settlements began developing, based upon fishing as a means of subsistence, though as of 2005 the population sank to around 3500 yet continues to thrive.
Mr. Psihoyos, on the other hand, was more than willing to talk to HESO:
HESO: When did you arrive in Japan?
Louie Psihoyos: Yesterday, and surprisingly not exhausted probably due more to fear of being arrested than anything, but we’re excited to be here.
HESO: Speaking of which, the ID screening for members of the press was late Sunday night and was nearly empty, the Japanese premiere was early Wednesday morning, there’s almost no information online nor are there any posters or advertisements anywhere in Roppongi. Do you feel the film is falling victim to some kind of media, for lack of a better word, conspiracy?
“Remember that one person can make a difference and a couple of passionate people together can change the world.”
LP: Well, TIFF didn’t even want me photographed near the Green Carpet. They did the minimal amount they could to get the film screened here, but that’s ok, at least we’re here. That’s amazing in itself. It’s a small start, but it’s a foothold.
HESO: As far as film festivals go, popular opinion states that they should be independent of the films they show, standing unbiasedly back and letting others judge for content, yet once you get to Japan it becomes a completely different issue. I was surprised that TIFF decided to show your documentary.
LP: You and I both. I’m still a little bit shocked.
HESO: As you said at the press conference, is it truthfully just the change in administration from former Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party to Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan or is it something else?
LP: There are other things going on, but Ben Stiller put some pressure on some friends, which helps, but it still wouldn’t have been possible with the LDP in power. They were complicit in covering these things up. People felt like the dragon had died or at least is out back for a while (laughs) and I think that’s the heart of it, what really paved the way.
HESO: About half of the Japanese people I have talked to about your film have heard something about this on the news, but not about the film exactly, yet rather in connection to Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson and Eco-terrorists using violence to dissuade fisherman from whaling. Do you agree with Watson’s methods? Would you be willing to take a softer approach in order to garner greater results?
LP: Listen, I know Paul Watson but I’m not a terrorist and I personally don’t subscribe to his methodology. I feel like film is the most powerful weapon in the world, more so than terrorism. You drop a bomb and you kill people, you drop a great film on them and it changes them forever. My strategy is to give a powerful piece of filmmaking to people to create a legion of activists. By activists I don’t mean sinking ships or burning down buildings, I mean people becoming active in their own lives.
HESO: So you are focusing on the human rights aspect rather than a purely animal rights issue?
LP: In the case of The Cove we are trying to make a movie that’s a microcosm of the oceans. I really feel we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans. This generation coming up and maybe the next one are going to be the only generations to be able to fix this before it’s too late, before well, just break out all the champagne and drink it because…there’s not going to be anything left for anybody else. Time really is running out. This is not some Hollywood movie that I’m describing here and I’m not just talking about The Cove, but rather the environment in general. If we don’t fix what’s going on in the oceans right now, we probably lose humanity as we know it and that’s not the plot of some science fiction movie, that’s real.
HESO: So this is larger than just some proud fisherman slaughtering dolphins for some cultural reasons?
LP: When the cultural tradition argument gets in the way of human rights, your argument falls apart. If we acidify the oceans just a bit more we lose the coral reefs and anything with a carbonate structure just dissolves. Plankton creates two out of every three breaths you take; it creates more oxygen than all of the rain forests combined. So little things like acidity going up have huge impacts on future generations.
HESO: Concerning the structure of the movie, I was interested to see that as the film progressed so did the problems of mercury-tainted dolphin meat.
LP: The way the movie is designed, which is really a lot to do with Mark Monroe, is that every time you come back after exposition the stakes get bigger. It’s not just that we’re capturing dolphins for captivity, we’re taking them into the cove and killing them. We’re not just killing them, we’re feeding them to school kids. We’re not just feeding them to school kids, they’re poisoned with Mercury. It’s not just that they’re poisoned with Mercury, everything we like to eat is poisoned and we’re losing it all pretty quickly. The bad guys quickly get bigger and badder and meaner and eventually, if you’re really paying attention, it’s us, all humans, who are the ultimate bad guys because we’re polluting the animals to the point where we can’t eat them anymore. The tragic irony of this movie is the dolphin is the only wild animal in the history of the planet to save human beings lives and the only way we can save its life is to prove we have made its environment so toxic that we can’t eat them.
HESO: Despite the relatively grizzly nature of what you’re documenting, many members of the press, while shocked to see it on film, felt it could have been much more heavy handed, gorier if you will. You must have a lot of great material for a director’s cut.
LP: They say you have to kill your babies when you make a movie and we had to kill a lot of babies editing this movie. With a documentary you have about ninety minutes before people start to fidget, so we had massive choices to make. We spent three and a half weeks cutting three minutes, just because those three minutes felt like ten. So doing that made the movie really tight to the frame. We go through every sequence and tried to cut out three frames, no two, or even just one frame, which I really like because it does create a tight narrative but it is painful as well. There are scenes I would have loved to have included but overall I feel it’s finished. It’s coming out on DVD soon.
HESO: Was it a conscious choice to have yourself featured in the film?
LP: No, not at all. What happened while we were doing the DVD extras, the director of Clandestine Operations Charles Hambleton, it was his idea to use the thermal camera to watch the guards and police and he said, “As long as we’re doing this, let’s hot wire this military grade camera to shoot video and we’ll shoot footage for the DVD extras.” We got aggressive about the extras. We had a great together, so we’ll do an Oceans 11 kind of thing and tack that on to the extras. When we got back safely to the U.S. Mark Monroe, Jeff Richmond and Fisher Stevens said this stuff is exciting, this should be part of the movie. I was really dragged kicking and screaming into the movie, but once I saw it I realized we had a structure that felt more like a feature film.
HESO: It is very cinematic and you are pushing the boundaries of documentary film-making farther with this new kind of action/documentary pastiche. Whereas it’s popular to make films “based upon true events” this documentary is the bizarre inverted world of that: a documentary of true events based upon the premise of an action film.
LP: I am a bit embarrassed to see myself on film, but there are so many cool characters in the film, that I still love watching the last twenty minutes of the movie. Ric going into the I.W.C., the killing scenes. I like to think that in an odd way it’s really artfully done. We spent two years working on the final two to three minutes of the killing scene. It took thirty days to get forty hours down to seventeen minutes. It took another year to get the seventeen minutes down to two or three that you could actually watch. We tried being heavy handed and we tried pulling it back as well. If you look at the structure of the film…you know, I hate horror movies. I was at a festival talking to a British horror film director who asked me what kind of films I make and as I was explaining The Cove to him I realized that it was a horror movie! (Laughs). Now I don’t want to make horror movies, but I wanted to analyze what makes a good one, so I went through and looked at scenes from classic horror films…
HESO: I did notice a Hitchkockian buildup to The Cove.
LP: Exactly. I always go back to the shower scene in Psycho. You think you’ve seen a woman get murdered but if you look at it carefully you never see the blade touch the woman. It’s not that horrible to watch. What it is is the music, the atmosphere. We did the same thing with The Cove. There is always a layer of water between the harpoon and the dolphin. The most horrifying bits, to me, are the aftermath.
HESO: We all come to movies, especially ones with this sort of controversial hype, with our own expectations and to a large extent we create what we see. We make our own movies.
LP: The most shocking scene to me is the sea of blood and the evergreens behind and you can hear the birds chirping. That’s not Foley, that’s real. Then you see this guy surface through the middle of the blood and squirt blood out of his snorkel, that is the most surreal scene in cinema. I forced myself to watch every second of every tape and when I saw that I thought, “Oh my god!” We were originally going to do four television programs: dolphins, whaling, tuna and overfishing, but the moment I knew we had a film was when Charles Hambleton put one of the rock cameras in front of the campfire scene. We didn’t know there was a campfire there. That was a hail mary shot or us, which is not cropped, everyone’s in there edge to edge, feeding the fire and If you notice, in the distance you can see some pilot whales spyhopping- which is when they go up to take a look around to see what’s going on above the water- and the beautiful sunrise. Wow, I worked for National Geographic over the course of eighteen years and I couldn’t have placed the camera better myself. When we set up those cameras it was dark and we had all been up for two days so the crew went home to sleep by I went across the cove, I was in full face paint, wearing all black, masking tape over anything shiny, and I climbed up a cliff then rappelled down onto a tiny ledge that was on a slant, bracing myself with my feet against a tree coming out of a rock. All my footage was shaky and none of it was usable. It was these dumb rocks that had shot the Citizen Kane of environmental films while my crew was sleeping. I was on that ledge for about fifteen hours until my crew could pick me up, because I had to stay there all day until they could pick me up at the next night. I was wetting myself and couldn’t move and it was the rocks that got the best stuff.
HESO: No one can say you’re not dedicated. In my experience talking to young Japanese people the majority of them have never eaten whale and definitely not dolphin. It’s their parents who grew up eating it for lunch in their school cafeterias when food was scarce after the war. So aside from the fact that, more than slaughtering dolphins for food, the main reason the hunts are conducted is to sell dolphins to aquariums across the globe, this doesn’t seem to be the cultural problem the fisherman say it is. If it weren’t for this loud, money-making minority would this be on the ecological radar at all? In effect is this on par with other potential ecological catastrophes such as shark-finning, reef loss and general fish stock decline?
LP: First of all, shark-finning is not sustainable, nor does it have any taste. They add flavor. It’s bad for the sharks and there’s no nourishment at all for those eating it.
HESO: The point is the Chinese say it’s considered a cultural tradition.
LP: Right, it’s similar, except in this case the dolphins are toxic. Not just a little bit, but through the roof. That’s unfortunately how I think this argument is going to be won. Animal rights gets people into the subject, it gets them emotional, gets them involved, but it’s a human rights issue and I would like to try to get them to transfer that emotion into becoming activists, and not just about this one issue but about myriad other problems which need to be solved. Remember that one person can make a difference and a couple of passionate people together can change the world.
- The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s food Recommendations for pregnant mothers.
- Japan Times Report: Dolphin meat ‘toxic waste’.
- A group dedicated to helping advance knowledge of dolphins among the Japanese population.
- Watch the trailer: The Cove
- Louie Psihoyos Photography
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a line of documentaries HESO Magazine will look at which revolve around potentially life-altering subjects. Many of these productions were funded independently and are still seeking wide release. There are many ways our readers can help promote positive movements: Visiting the website and donating a few dollars, educating yourself further on the subject, or simply telling friends and family members about alternative media and ideas. It’s simple. Don’t take my word for these things, but find out for yourself what’s going on in the world around you so you can make an informed decision about your own life and the lives of your family and community. Thanks.