An interview with director, Louie Psihoyos and dolphin activist, Ric O’Barry
THE COVE – It sounds an awful lot like a horror movie to me. In reality, it is a new documentary that it so much more horrific than any horror film I’ve seen in ages. There is a cove in a national park in Taiji, Japan. Every September, thousands of dolphins pass by this cove as part of their natural migratory pattern. Japanese fisherman, knowing full well that dolphins operate primarily with their sense of hearing, send noises under water that drive the dolphins into the cove. Once there, a net surrounds them so that they cannot just swim back into the ocean. A small selection of these captured dolphins, mostly female and more adorable than the rest if you will, are shipped from there to seaquariums around the globe for anywhere between $150K and $200K per dolphin. The rest are brought around the corner to a second cove. This cove is not accessible to the public and what goes on there in secret would turn your stomach in as many knots as it turns the water red with blood. The mercury-ridden dolphin meat is then sold in shops and passed off as whale meat to the innocent Japanese people, making this not only a crime against the animals themselves but also one against humanity itself.
World renowned photojournalist, Louie Psihoyos (pictured below up front and in camouflage), has been traveling the globe taking pictures for the likes of National Geographic, Newsweek and Time, to name but a few, since he left college. THE COVE is his first feature and, while well intentioned, he had no idea what was actually in store for him to make this movie happen. “A real filmmaker would have turned and run from this project,” Psihoyos tells me when we meet in Toronto, just days before the Canadian release and just days after the successful American launch. “Making the movie was actually a lot scarier than what you see on screen. We were exposing the dolphin trade; it’s not the kind of thing you tell your government about in advance.”
Even if they had alerted the American government, it isn’t likely they would have been any help. The Japanese government is so entrenched in the dolphin trade and billions of dollars would be lost if it were to be shut down. That said, THE COVE, if it continues on its successful path, actually has great potential to bring down this decades old trade. “The Japanese government is starting to feel it. It is sort of like a tsunami is rising up around them,” Psihoyos claims when asked if THE COVE has had any impact yet. “They’re hoping it just goes away but I’m hoping it crushes them.” As the film rolls out into theatres around the world and it motivates all those who see it to reach out to their own governments for change, it seems that all of the painstaking effort that went into the film might actually pay off in the best way imaginable.
Psihoyos had to assemble a team of filmmakers and non-filmmakers alike to make THE COVE possible. As the cove in Taiji was heavily watched by a number of mysterious interested parties, and Psihoyos and his crew were constantly followed wherever they went, they had to ditch the eyes on them and go in at night in order to set up cameras and sound equipment to capture what no one had been able to prior. To do this, he enlisted the help of cinematographers who knew how to hide cameras in rocks so that no one would notice them, divers that could place these cameras underwater and the world’s leading dolphin activist, Ric O’Barry (pictured just below), as a guide to the area and its dangers. Second of course to the atrocities regularly carried out in Taiji, O’Barry’s story is an oddly compelling secondary focus. O’Barry was responsible for the capture and subsequent training of the five separate dolphins that played Flipper in the popular 1960’s television program of the same name. Before “Flipper”, dolphins were not nearly as popular with the masses as they are now. It wasn’t until ten years after their capture that O’Barry had realized what he had done.
When the most prominent dolphin playing Flipper died in his arms in what Barry described as dolphin suicide (dolphins are conscious breathers, unlike humans, and decide each time they take a breath to do so; this dolphin decided not to take any more), he realized that dolphins were not meant for captivity. He has spent the last 38 years trying to correct his great wrong. “I used to operate from a place of guilt about 20 years ago,” O’Barry confides to me the same day I meet with Psihoyos. “Now, it is just like breathing. Someone calls me to rescue a dolphin and I just do it. And now, with this film, I feel vindicated.” In fact, O’Barry got an e-mail while we spoke about another dolphin in need and he yearns to get back to work after the film’s promotional tour. He is happy to help get the word out but he cannot wait to get back to Japan, even if it means being arrested for lying about his involvement with the film. “Arresting me in Japan would be like arresting Flipper. It would draw a lot of attention.” It almost sounds like he wants it.
With THE COVE generating some very early Oscar buzz in the documentary category, it seems that Psihoyos has a budding film career ahead of him and he could not be happier for himself or the film and its cause. “I think I’ve found my calling 52 years into my life and this is what I want to do from now on.” Let alone changing paths at that age, I am most impressed by how excited Psihoyos seems to be about this change and how surprised he is that it actually came about. “I want to make films that inspire other people to make films and create a whole legion of activists. When I see the audience reactions,” something Psihoyos was not always privy to as a photographer, “it brings tears to my eyes because I feel like its ok to dream.”
His is a dream that has already changed his life and now has the chance to change the world. Before Psihoyos and I part and he breaks for what will certainly be a dolphin free lunch, he shares one last note about the film. “I feel THE COVE is really quite hopeful. The audience now has to finish the story for themselves.”