a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who doesn’t love Flipper? That perpetually smiling, fin-waving, happy-go-lucky cetacean that offers quite the show of aerial acrobatics and then manages to save a surfer or two from a menacing Tiger Shark. What’s not to love?
Absolutely nothing, declares Activist Richard O’Barry, director Louie Psihoyos, and their assorted crew of adrenaline junkies, weepy free divers, and ex-military personnel. They’re counting on that exact kind of nostalgia for the beloved title star of the famed ’60s tv show (not to mention your fond memories of visits to Sea World with the kids to view the majestic, soaring dolphins), because they need you to get mad. Real mad. So mad that you’ll flee the theatre with tar-and-feather gusto towards those evil, evil Japanese fishermen to avenge the needless slaughter of thousands of helpless, beautiful dolphins each year.
Do they succeed in their mission?
It’s true that thousands of the intelligent and sensitive creatures are murdered in a cove off of Taiji, Japan every year, and the ghastly footage that this documentary crew captures — spear-clad fishermen repeatedly striking trapped and frenzied dolphins in a disturbingly careless, unthinking kind of choreography — is enough to wrench tears from even the coldest of souls. As the once murkily blue water turns a deep, shocking shade of crimson, and one last terrified and fatally injured dolphin jerks its head above and below the scarlet waves before it darts under one final time, never again to resurface, you think: THAT’S IT. THOSE MOTHER-F*CKING FISHERMAN ARE GOING DOWN.
And that’s exactly the problem with The Cove, Richard O’Barry’s vengeful documentary plea to save the dolphins: this fascinating doc is not meant to explain why the fishermen do what they do, why the Japanese government condones their actions, nor why the rest of the world — including so-called environmental activist groups — turn and look the other way. It’s not until 3/4 of the way through that the film begrudgingly reveals teasing nuggets of reasons as to why these slaughters are occurring. One being that 70% of people the world-over depend upon fish as their main source of food, a preference the dolphin shares. The filmmakers scoff at the Japanese rational that the dolphins are “pests” who are destroying their food supply: very little attention is paid to the fact that it’s true: if we do keep fishing as rapidly and rabidly as we have been, our current and main source of food will disappear in only forty years. This horrifying fact is glossed over by Ric and his crew as though it was the most absurd and inconsequential of facts.
Of course, the Taiji fishermans’ “over-populated dolphins are consuming all our food” excuse is downright ridiculous and offensive, but one interviewee additionally offers the reason for the slaughters as simply “the last grasp of an empire” that can no longer stomach the West (embodied here by the American activists-filmmakers) telling them what to do.
You walk away with an image of the Japanese as a maniacally laughing, soulless and power-hungry people who could give the slightest care for the adorably curious and self-aware animal that may actually equal humans in intelligence. The Japanese are depicted as the clear-cut, no-questions-asked villains in this narrative. You are not meant to understand them, nor their point of view. No, you’re meant to cry a lot (I did) and get angry (oh yes) while you watch what is in turn a Mission: Impossible-esque recon mission (complete with adrenaline-pumping musical score), weepy tragedy, and (least of all) informative documentary.
But you can’t entirely fault Ric for creating such an erratic and overly-emotional doc. The 70+ year-old activist, whose watery eyes always give him the appearance of crying for his beloved dolphins, began his career training show dolphins, including the original Flipper(s). You don’t need him to tell you — though he does anyway — that he blames himself for the world’s obsession with those lovable creatures — an obsession that ultimately lead to their captivity in aquariums and theme parks the world over…and quite possibly to the Taiji slaughters as well.
You needn’t blame Ric, because he already blames himself. All he really wants is for you to take notice…and maybe some action, too. So does his film succeed?