Friday, March 19, 2010

Oscar-winning documentary The Cove

It's now been almost two weeks since the 2010 Academy Awards. Neil Patrick Harris had a fun opening number. I thought The Hurt Locker was a great movie, so I'm glad it won lots of awards (especially Bigelow's Best Director!). I felt a little bad that Avatar didn't win more, but it definitely deserved the visual effects, art direction, and cinematography awards it took away. Essentially, it was by far the best looking of this year's movies. I was pleased that Star Trek got something (for makeup). District 9 walked away empty handed, but it was great that it was nominated in such competitive categories (best picture and best adapted screenplay).

Still, the win that I was probably most excited about was The Cove for Best Documentary. I haven't seen any of the other nominees, so I can't really say if The Cove was the best, but it is probably the best documentary that I've ever seen, and I think it deserved the award. Sadly, the winners were shuffled off the stage before the second producer, Louie Psihoyos--the one who was also the director--was able to say anything. You can see what he would have said in his Oscar speech here (not even that long--would have been 30 sec). The cameras also managed to show only the briefest flash of Rick O'Barry's sign saying to text DOLPHIN to 44144.

One of the great things about The Cove is how entertaining it is. It has an exciting story with an intriguing setting and interesting players. Most of it is set in the town of Taiji in Japan, a quiet little fishing town. It seems idyllic, but of course beneath the surface is an industry that regularly herds dolphins into a hidden cove and slaughters them. They kill about 23,000 dolphins a year; their business is legal and carefully protected from publicity by the government. Taiji even has a nice aquarium where you can see the smart dolphins perform in cute little dolphin shows...while you munch on a snack of dolphin meat. The fishermen are understandably sick of outsiders coming in to protest their work, but it is still kind of funny seeing them try to provoke the visitors in different ways to attack them so they can get the pesky visitors arrested. What is especially troubling is that the fishermen don't even make that much money from the dolphin killing. They make most of their money from selling live dolphins they capture to dolphinariums and the like--it's about $125,000 a pop. The money for dolphin meat is much lower, since other whale meat is much more expensive than dolphin (in the documentary, they found dolphin meat being sold under false labels, but that's a whole other can of worms there). One organization offered to compensate the fishermen with the same amount they earn from killing dolphins--paying their salary--but the offer was declined.

The main player in The Cove is Rick O'Barry, the dolphin trainer for the popular '60s "Flipper" TV show. He seems a bit of a fanatic, but his story is an interesting one. After his TV show went off the air and his dolphin friends were sent to aquariums, he saw that they were really depressed there. Not only were they confined to limited areas, but they were highly stressed by the noise--not just of the people, but even of their own tanks and filtration systems. One of the dolphins he had loved and worked with, he says, was so miserable she committed suicide in his arms. She looked at him and then just stopped breathing (dolphins, unlike humans, have to make the conscious decision to take each breath, which makes sense given that they live underwater). That is what set him off, and he saw that the show that he had participated in had now popularized these dolphinariums which were making the dolphins miserable. Furthermore, since the fishermen of Taiji really earn their living by selling live dolphins to dolphinariums, as he sees it the popularity of dolphin shows is funding the slaughter of 23,000 dolphins a year in the Taiji cove.

In The Cove, O'Barry recruits a special team to his cause. Someone in the movie compares their team to Ocean's 11, and that is a bit what it's like: different people with different specializations (for example, champion free-divers, and a movie set designer who made rock-looking casings in which to hide cameras) brought together to carry out a heist. Their mission: to get video and audio footage of the hidden cove where the dolphins are all killed. It's pretty suspenseful as they carefully observe the guards' routines and then descend on the cove in the middle of the night, literally fearing for their lives as they trespass on forbidden property.

The documentary also has clever clips selected to give you a sense of the ridiculous arguments made by the defenders of the dolphin harvest. It's the kind of pleasure you get when watching Jon Stewart show clips of Glenn Beck or Michele Bachmann. They also have good "gotcha" moments in some interviews, with satisfaction similar to that found in The Daily Show or Colbert Report interviews (the silly pre-taped and edited ones, not the ones during the show). For instance, there's an exchange with someone from Japan's fisheries department that goes something like this:
Fisheries guy: But the dolphins are slaughtered very humanely, with a special knife that they stick right through the spinal cord so they are killed instantly.
Director Psihoyos: If they weren't killed that way, would it be wrong?
Fisheries guy: I don't deal with ifs.
Director Psihoyos: Well, take a look at this.
Shows clip of fishermen on boats lazily spearing dolphins with jabs of long harpoons, after which the dolphins swim helplessly through the water, bleeding out over periods of minutes, until finally going under.
Fisheries guy: (Watches silently, and then--) Where and when did you get this footage?

There are also some relaxing, eye candy moments in the movie, with clips of dolphins in the waves, and of one of the free-divers swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat. One wonders if the dolphins are all calling out to each other Hey, look, it's a human, come check her out! Isn't she cute? It looked like so much fun, I realized that if I ever do swim with a dolphin, I want it to be out in the open ocean where they are free. Yeah, I was totally jealous of that free-diver and her monofin (I want to swim like a mermaid, too!).

The documentary offered a pretty one-sided look at the story, certainly, but it made a convincing case. One wonders whether the movie, and its increased publicity from winning the Academy Award, will be able to bring the change it aims to inspire. The trouble is, as pointed out in the documentary itself and in Psihoyos's (extended) acceptance speech, it's the people of Japan who need to know what's going on. The Japanese government won't change its policies because some outraged westerners are telling them that Taiji's practices are wrong. But the fact is that it seems most people in Japan don't view dolphin as a food animal--it's just in the small region around Taiji that they eat dolphin. And even within Taiji, there's some disagreement about the consumption of dolphin meat for health reasons (they were planning on putting it in mandatory school lunches, but some concerned parents prevented it). If enough people in Japan protest Taiji's dolphin slaughter, maybe the government will stop protecting the Taiji fishermen, and the fishermen will be convinced that the small profit they make from selling dolphin meat isn't worth it.

Time will tell what the documentary can accomplish. For now, I will just highly recommend that you see this Oscar-winning documentary if you get the chance--it's on DVD. It's fun, moving, and meaningful--what great entertainment should be.

Go to

This post explains why I enjoyed the movie, but my next post gives reasons why I agree with its message: Reasons not to eat dolphins


Holly said...

This totally looks like it'll make me cry, lol. But I'm definitely going to check it out after your review!!

Kayla said...

I am a sucker for documentaries in general but this one blew me away. First of all I couldn't believe I had no idea this was going on; second before I saw it I thought come one... it's about dolphins. I'm so glad I watched!!! Hooray for the win!

Eleni said...

Holly - Yeah, there were definitely some tears when I watched it. The poor dolphins! But it is uplifting, too, so it's not too bad.

Hi Kayla - I know...I mean, I knew that there were some people who still kill whales on a small scale (some Inuit, for example), but I didn't realize there was something on such a large scale as this. I'm glad you liked the movie, too. What other good documentaries have you seen? Any of the other nominees?

Vanessa said...

Im sure I'm gonna cry, but I must see this documentary! I'll definitely gonna look for it, thanks for sharing this.
I'm already moved by the dolphin's suicide episode, never thought that would be possible, how sad! I wonder if she looked at her old friend and tried to freeze his image on her brain, remembering the good times they spent together.

Eleni said...

Yeah, you should see O'Barry himself tell the story of the dolphin killing herself. Who knows what she was thinking at the time, but it's so sad.

If you do pick it up, I hope you like it.

Sebastian said...

Good review! I'll go download it now.

I still don't get why people care so much about dolphin slaughtering, but couldn't give a shit about cows or pigs.

23,000/year is such an infinitesimally small number!

Eleni said...

I hope you like it. I know you have a somewhat less idealistic (?) view of the eating dolphin issue.

23,000 killed each year for food...Small compared to what? Cows? Chimps? Humans?

Sebastian said...


I dare say there's more road kill each year than that...

Eleni said...

Hmph. Roadkill is not "killed for food" (unless you're opportunistic...but it's generally still not on purpose).

Dolphins die other ways, you know. I was trying to compare the number of dolphins purposely killed for food to the number of other animals purposely killed for food.

Sebastian said...

I was suggesting that road kill has quite a high carbon footprint too... and we don't even eat it!

I get the point, that we lack the resources for everyone to live on dolphin meat... but does that mean we should stop farming the dolphins?

If we ate what the dolphins ate the dolphins would die, right? Or if we eat the bottom of the food chain -- plankton? -- would we wipe out an entire ecosystem? Is that really better than sustainably killing dolphins...?

Eleni said...

We don't farm dolphins. We hunt them. And I'm not sure what's sustainable in killing dolphins. Marine mammals do tend towards being easily endangered, for whatever reasons.

The populations of different species are limited by different factors. If we ate what dolphins eat, or if we ate plankton, the dolphins would not necessarily die. Things with high reproduction rates are able to reestablish population quickly. Something like phytoplankton may mainly be limited by how many other plankton are in the water (blocking each other's light), so by harvesting it we'd just be clearing space for more phytoplankton to quickly move in and flourish. Dolphins reproduce very slowly, and are thus harder to sustainable harvest (it's kind of like how fossil fuels are renewable resources...if you're willing to wait a few million years).

Anyway, it's a complicated issue that would require some research into population dynamics.