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Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Blackfish Film Poster, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Magnolia Pictures

While Hollywood languishes inside of digitized cliché and regressive idolatry of the almighty dollar, the collective work of internationally-based documentary film makers only seems to improve year after year. Is it access to better and more easily functional technology or access to better and more compelling stories? What we used to revere as The News, is now so manufactured by particular interest groups as to render what passes for information is generally opinion. With the 24-hour news cycle comes a kind of desensitization of the news, or what is happening in the world, so that we as a collective society have relegated to the documentary film genre and to that peculiar brand of filmmaker the truly courageous chase of journalism. The journalism of documentary film is not always objective, as in the case of Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell (National Film Board of Canada), but it is generally fascinating and full enough of great stories and characters to overcome the slant of unbiased storytelling that is, more and more, the best form of informative media almost anyone currently has access to.

Take The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Final Cut For Real), in which the director offers the hitmen of Indonesian dictator’s Suharto’s death squad a chance to reenact their gruesome murders, in whatever Hollywood genre they wish to use. The film crescendoes to a bloody and violent apex only to grind to a halt as the murderers begin to intimately realize what they have done. This is more than the news could ever be. This is the new post-postmodern reality of melding the fantasical form of fictional film to the everyday make-believe humanity creates to get through the murder of life.

Many other noteworthy films from this year follow the example of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I live In, which give voice to those people who have little to no voice in society. Inequality For All by Jacob Kornbluth, Gideon’s Army by Dawn Porter, A River Changes Course by Kalyanee Mam and The Square from Jehane Noujaim are some of the best among a host of others. Yet the 2013 documentary film which has and will have affected change is Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Magnolia Pictures).

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

2. Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

When The Cove premiered at the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival, the director, Louie Psihoyos, answered questions from the audience after what amounted to one of the only showings of the controversial film in Japan. With the mayor of Taiji, the Japanese IWC Representative, the notorious Private Space all in attendance, Psihoyos spoke about why he had to make this film:

The skeptics wanted to focus on animal rights, but this isn’t just an animal rights issue…It’s a human health issue also. And I wanted everyone in the theater to understand that. It’s a human rights film because people need to know that the levels of mercury is off-the-charts toxic.

The Cove was called the Citizen Cane of environmental documentaries and while it proved to be ground-breaking–in many ways analagous to Kane–in its ability to uncover certain of the monstrosities perpetuated upon the animal kingdom by humans, the film was ultimately unable to create the upwelling of support domestically necessary to bring about swift and sure change in the treatment of cetaceans. People couldn’t relate. Americans don’t eat dolphin, never have. But Seaworld? This is where Blackfish changes everything.

The 83 minute film revolves around Tilikum, a 34-year-old orca, whose story is told from his initial capture in the North Atlantic in 1983 to his first non-ocean home at Sealand of The Pacific, where, in 1991, he was responsible for killing trainer Keltie Byrne. After which he was sold to SeaWorld Orlando, where trainers were kept in the dark about the whale’s involvement in Byrne’s death and permitted to work closely with him. Cowperthwaite gives these trainers voice to share with the audience the incorrect whale facts given to park visitors – from diminished whale lifespans to supposed whale behaviors. Since Blackfish’s production ex-trainer John Hargrove has written Beneath the Surface, an expose on the Seaworld culture.

Several whale attacks are seen and explained, including one involving trainer Ken Peters, who survived the grip of a killer whale who inexplicably refused to release him. Eventually we see the story which got Cowperthwaite off of her couch and talking to people: when veteran killer whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was attacked and killed by Tilikum on February 24, 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando.

Seaworld, not mentioning the film itself, took out full-page ads in national newspapers in mid-December 2013 which read “SeaWorld: The Truth Is in Our Parks and People” and summarized the following points:

  • SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.
  • We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.
  • SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.
  • SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.
  • The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.
  • SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.

OPS, the Oceanic Preservation Society, led by Louie Psihoyos, has released a letter countering SeaWorld’s facts, entitled, “Marine Mammal Captivity: The Truth Is in the Facts.” The subtitle reads “An Open Letter from the Informed American Public,” which is an important point. 50 years ago when SeaWorld was created, their ethos that “our guests may enter our gates having never given much thought to the remarkable animals in our oceans,” was largely true. Most Americans didn’t know anything about fish, let alone cetaceans and other marine mammals. 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, “when they leave with a greater appreciation for the importance of the sea, educated about the animals that live there and inspired to make a difference, we have done our job,” this statement might have been true to the extent that other than those guided by self-interest and curiosity in the exploration of marine biology, not many people in general give much thought to what lives in the ocean other than the tuna fish sandwich their mom used to make them, but today is another story.

Today we have documentaries like The Cove, Sharkwater, Atlantis, and the work of Jacques Cousteau, who taught that there is as much educational benefit in studying dolphins and whales in captivity as there is in studying humans by observing prisoners in solitary confinement. Today we do not have to rely solely on passionate experts like Cousteau, Cowperthwaite and Psihoyos. Today we have the ability to find out for ourselves what kind of world we live in, and more than ever, choose what kind of world we want to live in. The fact that Blackfish has been aired multiple times on CNN to an audience of more than 20 million, and has become available via iTunes and Netflix, is proof enough that the American public is interested and is becoming educated.

The letter finishes by saying “The truth about SeaWorld is in the facts. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish and our film The Cove give viewers a deep and meaningful connection with the remarkable animals in our oceans. But this is just the beginning of a growing shift in public awareness about the impoverished lives of animals at SeaWorld. As Cowperthwaite says, young people today are becoming the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation. No amount of advertising will counter the Blackfish Effect. SeaWorld, your job is to now adapt to an informed public.”

Whether we agree that capturing and holding animals in captivity is something we as a society want to continue, a related issue has to be that of the survival of the oceans, acidifying at an alarming rate. The Losing Nemo animated short by, coincidentally enough, The Black Fish, is compelling enough to get you to think that without changing the way we do many things, the only animals that exist will be in tanks and surrounded by cages, ourselves included.

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

“I really feel we only have a couple decades to turn around what’s going on in the oceans.

— Louie Psihoyos

The photos depicting peaceful inlets of coastal water are of Taiji, a little known whaling town on the Pacific coast of Japan’s Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. The region is known as Kumano, and is a world heritage site, renown for its pilgrim trail and striking temples set in both ancient Cedar forests and along pristine coastline, such as this. The jagged asymmetry of the windswept trees perched on jutting outcroppings of rocks, themselves constantly battered by the sea, feels like something out of the Ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige’s well-known repertoire of wood cuts.

Because it is spread over an entire peninsula (the Unesco people couldn’t name just one spot a World Heritage Site) the area is a well-kept secret, even amongst the Japanese. With the overpowering Mt. Fuji, the Nagano Alps and other monumental landscapes to compete with, it’s easy to see why. After making the out-of-the-way journey, most Japanese will readily admit that Kumano, and Taiji in particular, with its mixture of mist-shrouded mountains and craggy cliffs, is one of the most startlingly beautiful views of the sea in Japan.

Yet every September when a group of fishermen emerge from Taiji’s sheltering coves to catch the yearly dolphin migration in order to supply the world’s aquariums with fresh dolphins (at around 200,000USD a head), these picturesque waters turn from cobalt blue to blood red in a matter of hours. How? Why? It depends on who you ask.

The Cove - Interview with Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos © Manny Santiago

Last October, HESO asked Louie Psihoyos founder of OPS (Oceanic Preservation Society) and director of The Cove. Referring to the annual slaughter of approximately 2000 dolphins in the waters of Taiji, he said Japan is “a microcosm of the oceans.

“I really feel,” he continued, “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…”

HESO: So this is larger than just some proud fisherman slaughtering dolphins for some cultural reasons?

Louie Psihoyos: 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. If we can’t win this small fight in Taiji, how can we win the bigger fight?”

How can we indeed.

The truth is that we are already—right now—in the midst of a massive extinction. The funny, but not funny at all, part is that most are of species we had no idea existed in the first place. Click To Tweet

Spreading Poison – Taiji’s Mercurial Defiance of the Oceans

“Ocean acidification is a growing global problem that will intensify with continued CO2 emissions and has the potential to change marine ecosystems and affect benefits to society.” said a June report on Ocean Acidification for the National Research Council and Congress.

Jon Ellis, an avid diver and underwater photographer might phrase the panel’s comments differently. This from his recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef:

While it’s hard not to buy into the popular notion of having repeatedly soiled our own diapers, to the point of ruination, it’s also hard not to applaud what a dedicated few are still doing to in trying to race the clock to help stem the tide (pun intended) of the current big biological catastrophe.

“Things like the BP oil spill in the gulf, while completely terrible—and avoidable mind you—are really just the fetid frosting on the rotten cake, so to speak.” says a San Francisco environmental activist wishing to remain anonymous. “The truth is that we are already—right now—in the midst of a massive extinction. The funny, but not funny at all, part is that most are of species we had no idea existed in the first place.”

In The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey and Robert Lewin say that the current one—differing from the previous five—is a patently human-caused event. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge believes that there can be little doubt amongst logical people that humans are the direct cause of ecosystem stress and species destruction. “Transformation of the landscape, overexploitation of species, pollution, and introduction of alien species explosion of human population, especially in the post-Industrial Revolution years of the past two centuries, coupled with the unequal distribution and consumption of wealth on the planet, is the underlying cause of the Sixth Extinction.”

Louie Psihoyos and OPS’s next documentary film, Racing Extinction, will focus on this mass extinction event, but—if it’s possible—in a positive way. Can pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, global climate change and ocean acidification be overcome?

The truth is that the reef really isn’t in that good condition. Even in areas where people rarely dive there is a lot of dead coral around. It’s true that it appears to be recovering – new growth dots the outcrops of dead coral, but… Click To Tweet

Save coral reefs, which constitute less than one percent of the ocean’s space, but are home to more than 25 percent of its fish, and you can save humanity. Kill them and you kill us. How are we planning on saving them from bleaching—a whitening of corals that occurs when symbiotic algae living within coral tissues are expelled? Bleached coral may recover over time or simply die out altogether. The truth is, as Bill Bryson puts it in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.”

Some recent bleaching events are the result of a rise in sea surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea—an area that includes the coasts of Myanmar, Thailand, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and northwestern Indonesia. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Hotspots website, temperatures in the region peaked in late May at more than 93° F (34° C), while long-term averages for the area are around 86°. The hottest summer on record is producing record temperatures in the oceans as well, a place that oceanographers admittedly know very little about.

Something we do know is that the seas around Australia’s 20,000 miles of coastline are notoriously stingy. Enough so as to exclude them from the top fifty fishing nations, according to Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters. Magnesium Photo’s Matt Greenfield, an avid diver, recently photographed sharks around the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast—one of the only places in their coastal waters where sea-life is truly abundant.

Finning sharks, dredging the ocean floor, selling tainted dolphin meat as whale: the animal rights argument rightfully doesn’t stop nearby Japan from scouring the world for what the Aussies—despite 9 million miles of territorial waters—have to import. Japan’s very long and extremely well protected fisheries arm—accounting for more than 15 percent of the worldwide catch—is often openly hostile, misleading and willfully ignorant toward their own customers and any such international pressure citing anything, even the human rights argument. Tsukiji Fish Market in central Tokyo, the country’s seafood nerve center, is the largest in the world and the only one of many fish markets which have misrepresented dolphin and other cetacean meat for whale meat. Their spokespeople seem to have a preternatural gift for keeping the masses ignorant of the unsustainable truth, flouting international law and deflecting criticism from abroad.

Agree to Neither Agree Nor Disagree

“Most Japanese people are completely unaware of this (Dall’s Porpoise) hunt – it’s the largest direct hunt of any whale, dolphin and porpoise in the world and is putting these animals at risk while producing hundreds of tonnes of toxic meat for human consumption.”

Clare Perry EIA Senior Campaigner

Meanwhile, many Japanese Fisheries apologists will counter with statements like, “…in a world where we eat millions of chickens, cows and pigs, where we seem intent on plucking every salmon, cod, oyster and shrimp out of the ocean, is there something morally wrong about hunting a marine mammal like a dolphin?”

Not morally, but concerning consumer’s health, yes. Based on 1972 World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, Japan’s fisheries and Health Ministry (JMHLW) have been ignoring the self-imposed maximum contamination levels in seafood products of 0.3µg/g (parts per million – ppm) Methylmercury (MeHg) and 0.4ppm Mercury (Hg). Recently tested Dall’s porpoise samples (from a separate hunt in northern Japan) being 1.02µg/g, almost three-and-a-half times the recommended limit, often more (Source: EIA-International). The giant Blue-fin Tuna, known in sushi bars around the world as maguro, are regularly toxic as well. In fact any fish, or ocean going mammal over a certain size and age is likely a repository for dangerous levels of Mercury and any other heavy metals dumped in the ocean over the past 60 years.

Lucky then that not many are actually eating it. Certainly not the Japanese. According to the Guardian, of the 1,873 tons of whale meat processed in 2001, 70 tons went unsold. As a recent poll suggests, some 95 percent of the 1,047 respondents reportedly ate whale meat “very rarely”, had not eaten whale meat in a “long time”, or ate it “not at all”. 34.5 percent of the poll’s participants thought commercial whaling should resume, and 39.2 percent “neither agreed nor disagreed” with the idea.

One Japanese scholar with an opinion, Jun Morikawa of Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, argues that whaling’s popularity—and therefore the fishing of all cetaceans—is largely a myth promulgated by certain governmental bodies and major players within the whaling industry. Though it seems that as long as 39.2 percent of the world “neither agree nor disagree” with any of this, our oceans will be in trouble.

HESO would like to thank Louie Psihoyos from OPS and Clare Perry from EIA-International for their cooperation in creating a dialogue of openness.

The Cove - Interview with Louie Psihoyos

The Cove – Interview with Louie Psihoyos

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:

The Cove – Interview with Louie Psihoyos

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?

The crew of the documentary, Left to Right; Director Louie Psihoyos, Production Manager Joe Chisholm, Associate Producer Charles Hambleton,

The crew of the documentary, Left to Right; Director Louie Psihoyos, Production Manager Joe Chisholm, Associate Producer Charles Hambleton,

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.

About 2300 dolphins are slaughtered for food every year in this secret cove near Taiji, Japan filmed with covert cameras by the Oceanic Preservation Society.  Even though the meat is toxic the Japanese government sanctions the use of the mercury laced meat for school lunch programs.

About 2300 dolphins are slaughtered for food every year in this secret cove near Taiji, Japan filmed with covert cameras by the Oceanic Preservation Society. Even though the meat is toxic the Japanese government sanctions the use of the mercury laced meat for school lunch programs.

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.

Louie Psihoyos listens to a question from the media during the off-site Press Conference for the Japanese premiere of <em>The Cove</em>

Louie Psihoyos listens to a question from the media during the off-site Press Conference for the Japanese premiere of The Cove

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.


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.

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