Shallow Water. Deep Secret.
Why this year’s must-see film is a documentary.
By Dee Jefferson
Since it debuted at Sundance in January, winning Audience Choice, The Cove has been the subject of widespread Oscar speculation, with many tipping it for Best Documentary. The hype is warranted. This is probably unlike any documentary you have seen – the urgency of its topic, its careful construction and cracking pace make it more like a thriller.
The characters (Louie Psihoyos, of the Oceanic Preservation Society, and dolphin-trainer-turned-rescuer Ric O’Barry) could be straight out of Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic; their mission, to assemble an elite team with special skills suited to undercover surveillance, could be straight out of Oceans 11 – except these adventurers are breaking into a fishing cove in rural Japan. What they find there is straight out of Stephen King.
The Cove has had audiences at film festivals around the world in tearful standing ovations. The man behind it, director and internationally acclaimed wildlife photographer Louie Psihoyos, still gets teary watching it.
In 2000, when he was attending a conference for marine mammal scientists, Psihoyos noticed that keynote speaker Ric O’Barry had been banned at the last minute. When he made enquiries, Barry told him that the conference sponsor, Sea World, had vetoed his speech.
For many years, O’Barry had trained the dolphins who “played” Flipper in the 70s television series – until his observations of the effects of captivity on these intelligent beings made him a passionate advocate on their behalf.
O’Barry had intended to talk about the Japanese fishing village of Taiji, where fishermen do a deadly annual trade in dolphins, selling them into captivity (to places including Sea World), and even killing them for their meat. Psihoyos agreed to go to Taiji with O’Barry, to see for himself.
“I tried to do the story legally,” says Psihoyos – “I really thought I could do a story that’s more meaningful if I could get their point of view. I worked with an interpreter, I tried to lay all the groundwork – that was the point of doing this movie, I thought.
“Until I realised that they were hiding something. Then the Mayor’s office started to threaten me, said ‘well we can’t guarantee your safety if you do this story’, and started insinuating that I was going to get hurt – that didn’t sit with me very well.”
The threats convinced Psihoyos that there was something in Taiji worth uncovering. However to get inside the cove, which is a natural fortress, and accessible only by a guarded pathway, was no mean feat.
Psihoyos assembled a team with specialised skills that would help the team get into the cove, to plant hidden cameras and sound recording devices – a world champion freediver; the head mold maker at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic; an electronics expert formerly with the Canadian Air Force; and some island pirates. Getting inside the cove required covert missions in the middle of the night, with the crew in full camouflage, and using military grade thermal cameras to scope out the guards.
“The first night of that footage, when we got it back,” the director recalls, “we realised this is a horror show, what’s going on here.” And the more they investigated what was happening in this cove, the more layers they uncovered to a story that spread well beyond animal cruelty, to governmental corruption and the cover-up of a vast human health hazard.
During the day the crew’s vehicles were tailed by unmarked police cars, and the local fishermen used intimidation and the threat of arrest to prevent them getting close to the cove, let alone taking photos.
“I wanted to kill them,” admits Psihoyos. “I wanted to blow up their boats! But you do that, and it’s a temporary fix. It’s like a war – you really don’t change any minds when you hurt somebody; this film has an opportunity to stop it for good. And that’s what [got me through it].”
“Film is the most powerful weapon of mass construction that there is; it’s the one last hope I think we have for humanity, to galvanise the best of humanity, to preserve what’s left.”
As a photographer, Psihoyos has dedicated most of his life to the power of the image. “My mission at National Geographic was to take pictures that burned retinas,” he explains. Accustomed to researching intensively for his photographic assignments, he approached this film with the same commitment and perfectionism.
“We were going to the point where we were like ‘okay let’s take off 3 frames at the end; now let’s do two; let’s try one; no back to two,” Psihoyos recalls. “We considered every single scene in here, down to a frame. We screened it for a lot of different people all over the world, [including] Japanese people, filmmakers, non-filmmakers –just to make sure people actually understood it.”
It has paid off. This is possibly the most galvanising, inspiring documentary you have ever seen – about the power of individuals to effect a change.
“The question is, what do you do the next day – after you see this film, after you read this article – whatever you’re doing – what do you do the next day that’s going to advance things?” asks Psihoyos.
“I think you can do quite a bit. I mean, you can turn off the lights when you’re not using them,” he says, getting up to switch off the lights in the hotel suite. “There’s a thousand little things you can do.”