The Cove is the first of this year's crop of Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees I've had the chance to see, but it would be tough to top it in my book. It's a thrilling and enraging film that has changed the way I look at things, which is the goal of films of its type.
As with all propagandistic documentaries, there are two elements at work--judging the film on its merits as a film, and its particular cause. Often a film that addresses a particularly sympathetic cause will be well received, though it may not be well-made, while other films, that are masterpieces of the genre, such as Triumph of the Will, are for causes long ago abandoned by right-thinking people. The Cove is about the unwarranted slaughter of dolphins, and unless you're one of the Japanese fisherman whose economic interests lie at the heart of the issue, you would have to be pretty heartless not to feel empathy for the cause. But I'm happy to report that the film itself is a crackerjack entertainment, crafted like a top-flight caper film.
The Cove was directed by Louie Psihoyos, a nature photographer who was alerted to a dolphin killing-ground in Japan by Ric O'Barry, who is the heart of the film. He was the original dolphin-trainer, the man responsible for the performances by the animals in the TV show Flipper almost fifty years ago. He had an epiphany many years ago that keeping these creatures in captivity and training them for the amusement of humans was wrong, and has spent the rest of his life trying to atone, to the point of being arrested several times for freeing dolphins. His evangelical fervor is hard to resist, and he makes a great subject.
He tells Psihoyos about a village called Taiji in Japan, and a small cove where dolphins are captured and sold to places where dolphins are exhibited. Those that aren't sold are slaughtered for meat, though very few people eat dolphins, and there are high levels of mercury in them. The ironies of the town are everywhere, as touristy statues of whales and dolphins abound. The local aqua-park has dolphin shows, and also sells their meat, so you can pet a dolphin and then take some home for dinner.
The fishermen protect their cove zealously, and the government hides the activities from the general public. The Japanese have always been resistant to commercial whaling laws, and there's a pointed segment on how they buy the support of smaller, poorer nations in their fight to roll back bans on whaling.
Psihoyos and O'Barry assemble a team that attempts to plant surveillance cameras to document what the fishermen do to dolphins, and it's here that The Cove becomes something more than a dry recitation of atrocities. Psihoyos likens it to Ocean's Eleven, and he's not far off, as he recruits a special-effects whiz from Industrial Light and Magic to create hidden cameras in rocks, and free-divers to plant microphones. Like a squadron of Navy seals they sneak into the cove after dark, wary of authorities. It's as thrilling as The Guns of Navarone.
Of course this film is propaganda, which shouldn't be viewed as a pejorative term--anything that attempts to influence one's opinion on something is propaganda. What's important is if it's true. The Cove doesn't bend over backwards presenting the other side--the Japanese whaling commission figure is clearly presented as villainous. The Japanese fishermen argue that Westerners eat cows, what's the difference, but there is a huge difference--dolphins are wild animals, and also extremely intelligent. I was taken aback by O'Barry's claim that they are self-aware. It's often been said that man is the only animal that knows he's going to die, but perhaps that isn't true. One person in the film says that dolphins may be more intelligent than people, but I can't buy that. If that were true they'd be training us to perform in shows.
What is clear is that their is no huge demand for dolphin as a food source--they are killed as a by-product of their capture for places like Sea World. I'm not an absolute animal-rights guy--I'm not a vegetarian--but I refuse to go to the circus and I'll these kind of water parks to the list. The enslavement and torture of wild animals for entertainment seems to me to be just plain wrong.