International Marine Mammal Project

Award-Winning Film Uncovers Dolphin Slaughter

Earth Island News

In the intensely competitive film industry, even getting your foot in the door can seem impossible. Take, for instance, the Sundance Film Festival, the Robert Redford-founded annual gathering for independent filmmakers. More than 800 documentaries were submitted for screenings at the 2009 festival. Sundance organizers chose just 16 to screen. And of those 16, just one – the new film The Cove – won the coveted Audience Award for Best Documentary.

The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos and produced by the Oceanic Preservation Society, focuses on the campaign by Earth Island Institute and our Save Japan Dolphins Coalition to halt the annual slaughter of thousands of dolphins in the town of Taiji, Japan. The film’s center-point is the small cove outside Taiji where the yearly dolphin massacre occurs. But in chronicling the efforts of Richard O’Barry, director of the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition, to expose and stop the practice, the film tells a much bigger story – of corrosive corruption within the Japanese government and of the public health risks the government is hiding from its own people.

The filmmakers started out with the intention of making a standard documentary film. When they ran into intense opposition from local officials and fishermen, the movie headed in a whole different direction. Suddenly the filmmakers, assisted by Save Japan Dolphins staff, found themselves using all manner of James Bond-like undercover maneuvers to tell a simple story.

The result is a heart-racing documentary unlike any other. Scenes filmed under the green lens of night-vision goggles, and racing, handheld camera work make The Cove feel like a spy thriller – with the filmmakers cast as the spies and the members of the Oceanic Preservation Society (rumored to be facing arrest warrants from the Japanese government) playing the part of international fugitives. This isn’t your usual Discovery Channel special about sea mammals: The Cove has real suspense.

The critics agree. Justin Chang from Variety wrote “documentaries don’t get more compelling.” Chris Columbus, director and producer of several of the Harry Potter films, said that The Cove was “incredibly moving, scary, riveting, a terrific film. One of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years.”

During Sundance screenings, the film repeatedly received standing ovations, an unheard-of reception for documentaries at the festival. As O’Barry notes: “People cried; they laughed; and at the end of the movie, they asked what they could do.”

To provide answers to that question, members from the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition – which aside from Earth Island also includes In Defense of Animals, Ocean Care of Switzerland, Campaign Whale of the UK, Animal Welfare Institute, and Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan – passed out campaign postcards after the film showings.

With The Cove expected to be picked up by a distributor – and with a theatrical release as soon as this spring or summer – the Coalition is mobilizing to do even more leafleting at movie theaters. The film will give campaigners an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the Taiji dolphin slaughter, but also to educate people about the trafficking in live dolphins for aquariums and “swim-with-the-dolphins” programs around the world. These dolphin captures, in fact, help subsidize the Taiji killings, as a single live dolphin can be sold for as much as $150,000.

The Cove, then, isn’t just about a single atrocity. Rather, its raw, gruesome images carry a larger message, a reminder of how we must work together to protect our common oceans by fighting pollution, overfishing, climate change, and other threats to dolphins and whales.

As one of the human subjects of The Cove says at one point in the film: “You’re either an activist … or an inactivist.”

—IMMP Staff & Jason Mark

Take Action:
Please visit today. There you can e-mail a letter to the Japanese Embassy calling for a halt to the Taiji hunt; make a donation to the Save Japan Dolphins Coalition; and keep informed about theater screenings of The Cove and how you can use the film to help spread the word.

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