Monday, August 29, 2011

The Cove: would you eat a dolphin?

Continuing my recent run of excellent documentaries (see Food Inc and Inside Job), I also recently saw The Cove. For what it's worth, all three were nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary feature, and two won. All three currently receive over 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Unlike the other two, however, The Cove has a more local focus. Focussing on a small cove on the Japanese coast, the film is paced as an mystery thriller in which the dark secrets of a place are gradually brought to light. The film's heart and central voice is Ric O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer turned activist. O'Barry was responsible for catching and training the five dolphins who played the title character in the popular 1960's TV series Flipper. Yes, you now have the music stuck in your head. It was catchy. Yet when his favourite individual committed suicide (this is how O'Barry describes it), he was forced to reconsider the ethics of keeping wild dolphins in captivity. By the next day he was being arrested for attempting to liberate other dolphins from the marine park where he worked. O'Barry's years of marine animal activism led him to Japan, the premier supplier of dolphins for the multi-billion dollar marine amusement park industry. And from there to a single small cove where most of the wild dolphins for sale are caught. However, apart from the cruelty and stress experienced in captivity by these intelligent creatures, the darker secret of the place, initially only hinted at and deliberately concealed by local fishermen and police, is slowly revealed to the viewer as the film crew risk arrest to get footage. Hidden cameras placed under cover of darkness record the grisly fate of the ten thousands of dolphins who are rounded up annually and yet are not suitable for exploitation as marine entertainers. The film's denouement is not for the queasy or faint of heart.

This is a film that deliberately seeks a significant emotional engagement with the viewer. Our sympathy for the dolphins is carefully cultivated and righteous outrage stoked. The perspective of the fishermen is noted, yet there is no attempt at impartiality here. We are called upon to take sides. The role of villain is left to the Japanese, and there is significant danger of being invited into an all too easy condemnation from a distance. The violence and cruelty done to animals in our name closer to home is only passingly noted. Nonetheless, this film is worth seeing as another step in developing a deeper affinity for creatures beyond the human, and for thinking again about how we treat other members of the community of creation.

For those in Australia, it is freely available on ABC's iView for the next two weeks.


Anonymous said...

The documentary was certainly moving, however I have been disturbed by some of the racist comments from others who have seen it.

I wonder how Australians would feel if Japanese were sneaking around the outback filming kangaroos being slaughtered with the aim of releasing an extremely biased documentary for global distribution?

byron smith said...

Hi Anon, thanks for your comment.

I don't have a problem with the documentary being biased, since that is the ethical framework it brings to the issue (that dolphins, as sentient and highly intelligent creatures, are not to be kept in captivity or slaughtered for food). Whether such a framework would extend straightforwardly to kangaroos is an interesting question. I am aware that there is community opposition to kangaroo culls, though the fact that such culls are not kept secret like the events in The Cove is an indication of something. At least it is an indication of an expectation of more widespread acceptance of the practice, whether or not this acceptance is itself a symptom of insensitivity might be a matter for debate.

As for racism, I noted the tendency in the film to portray the "bad guys" as other, though this was partially mitigated by the implication that the dolphin slaughter is a by-product of the trade in captive dolphins, which in turn is fed by consumer demand at home, as well as elsewhere.

All that said, perhaps such a hypothetical documentary would do us good by putting certain issues on the national agenda in a way that a local production might not be able to.

byron smith said...

Onion: Dolphins not as intelligent as we once thought.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Filippino mural painter inspired by The Cove.

byron smith said...

Grist: Mercury in seafood - where does it come from? A: mainly coal.