A shock to our shores

By Amy Middleton 18 August 2009
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
Acclaimed documentary The Cove reveals a shocking secret that urges Australians to remain morally aware, and politically active.

What does an acclaimed, intensely evocative, American-made documentary about how the Japanese treat their sea-life have to do with Australian audiences?

A lot, says Louis Psihoyos – the impassioned, verbose, vegan-shoe-wearing director of the doco. But what would an American know?

“Australians care a lot about the environment – and dolphins and whales in particular,” Louis told AG at his Sydney harbour-side hotel. “The Satellite Theatre filled up [for The Cove], and after a 90 minute film and a 30 minute Q&A, nobody got up from their chairs. They were stunned. They were shocked.”

The film follows a group of advocates (including a couple of Aussies) as they penetrate the Japanese whaling town of Taiji to expose a deeply-buried, conspiracy-fed secret that takes place at the film’s namesake cove.

The veil is lifted on the horror scene of a dolphin massacre that occurs yearly, in a restricted-access inlet within a National Park. For Australians, it may disturb some viewers to know that Taiji’s sister city is Broome.

“Having Taiji for a sister city is like having Hannibal Lector as a brother,” Louis boldly states. “Both towns were probably involved in whaling at the same time… Broome has evolved, but Taiji is still stuck in this past.”

For most, animal rights issues initially ring the loudest alarm bells, especially when the sometimes harrowing documentary takes a graphic turn – gruelling footage shows dolphin killings quickly rally audiences to the cause (we’re not ashamed to say there were a couple of tears shed at camp AG).

Although the film contains a glossed over message of good guys/bad guys, it’s important to note that if you extract the anti-Japanese sentiment, this film’s canvas is not left bare. Confronting important issues to do with the pace of international policy and the role of activism in environmental issues, The Cove is, first and foremost, an action documentary made for cinema. And there, through all the grimness, is a lighter side.

It’s hard not to giggle (and sometimes groan) as the covert operation into Taiji begins to resemble a scene from G.I. Joe. The group don camouflage and literally army-crawl into prohibited territory, armed with hidden cameras, scuba suits and other high-tech gadgets, and somehow we’re reminded to view activism as a high-octane, necessary activity, instead of an extremist annoyance.

Pure entertainment aside, one of the more solid themes is the narrative arc following would-be protagonist Richard (Ric) O’Barry. Ric was made famous decades ago as a trainer of the original Flipper, and feels personally responsible for the dolphin-mania that resulted from the TV show’s popularity.

The tourism industries’ demand for dolphins has since brought their price tags at wildlife swap-meets to six figures, and Ric’s guilt at his involvement in the yearly massacres of Taiji is a theme that has a wider resonance.

“One reason the movie works is that Ric’s narrative thread, his redemption story, echoes our own.”

Because of dolphins, Ric O’Barry had fame, fortune and success. But slowly he realised that his relationship with dolphins had transformed into exploitation. And the echo is that of our own conscience, our ongoing treatment (and exploitation) of the environment in Australia.

“Ric turned his back on it, and that’s what we need to do,” Louis urges. “We’ve achieved a certain amount of mastery, or what we think is control over the environment, but we’re destroying it at the same time.”

It seems that to illustrate a universal truth, The Cove uses the microcosm of one bay, one season of murders, one species being mistreated, and one looming, government-concealed health issue.

We rate this doco as an action-packed, entertaining portrayal of a very serious issue, and urge audiences to couple their movie-watching experience with a social conscience.

Prepare for self-reflection, because it turns out The Cove has quite a lot to do with Australians, and the issues in our own backyard.