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Film Review

The Cove

Taiji, Japan: a little town with a big secret. And a bloody one. Louie Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer, has produced a compelling documentary about the annual slaughter of dolphins in this village. Psihoyos assembles a team of divers, activists, technologists, and mechanics to attempt to document the killing, which the fisherman and the authorities have taken great pains to hide. The dolphins are herded into large nets during their annual migration, and then killed in a cove that is kept strictly off limits and invisible to outsiders. More than 23,000 dolphins are killed annually in Japan alone, a number far higher than the Japanese government has admitted. According to the film, some of the dolphins are selected for training as performers, and supply most of the water parks around the world. The rest are killed for their meat, which it turns out, is often mislabeled as whale meat, and sold in Japanese supermarkets. Aside from the moral aspects of killing these highly intelligent, social creatures, there are serious health issues from their very high levels of mercury. A very sensitive topic in Japan, since the Minamata mercury poisoning that caused several thousand children to be born deformed and severely brain damaged in the 1950's and 60's.

A key player here is Ric O'Barry, the original trainer of Flipper, who created a huge demand for performing dolphins. Performing dolphins sell for large amounts of money, and in essence subsidize the killing of the remaining dolphins for food. O'Barry says that he finally realized the evil in the capture and the entire concept of performing dolphins, who often die of stress during captivity. He relates the death of Cathy, one of the Flipper dolphins, dying in his arms by what he believes was suicide. Dolphins are very social creatures, and captivity often results in early death. And he began a 30 year career to attempt to undo the damage that he feels he created. Since the fisherman are understandably hostile, Psihoyos's team mounts a complex operation to use state of the art infra red photography (for night use) and high definition hidden cameras to film the killing. The team, which includes a pair of champion free divers and others, plants the equipment underwater and in ingeniously crafted artificial rocks that they place on the hillside over lookjng the cove. A friend at George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic has created the "rocks", some with ingenious tops that flip open on command. Much of the film is devoted to this effort, and it is as fascinating and suspenseful as any spy film. There is also footage shot during some of the International Whaling Commission's meetings, during which the Japanese representatives claim that whales are responsible for the decline in fish stocks, and by hunting whales and the smaller cetaceans, they are simply doing "pest control" work. The film discusses the claim of cultural traditions of hunting whales in Japan, which is refuted by fascinating interviews with people in larger cities, who are unbelieving that their nation is killing, much less eating, dolphins. A former representative to the IWC from the island of Dominica discusses why the Japanese government, in the face of so much adverse publicity, seems determined to continue hunting whales and dolphins. His conclusions are surprising.

Most of the cinematography is excellent, including considerable footage from hidden cameras or taken with small video cameras during confrontations with the fisherman. The actual killing scenes are bloody and painful to watch, as the dying animals struggle and thrash. But these scenes are only a very small part of this 92 minute film, and should not dissuade anyone from seeing this extremely well made and important document. I urge you to see this outstanding film. You will leave as a different and more enlightened human being. Just opened at the Embarcadero.

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