‘The Cove’ strives for changes in Japan

First-time filmmaker Louie Psihoyos fears his much talked about doc, The Cove won't screen in Japan because it depicts a reality that the Japanese government wants to keep from its people. But after a successful first week in LA, and a standing ovation after the preview screening in Toronto last night, the filmmaker is hoping word of mouth will keep the message of ending the dolphin slaughter in Taiji alive.
August 5, 2009

Former dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry wishes he’d never started the capture and training of dolphins for the TV series Flipper. Today, theme parks with dolphin shows that allow people the opportunity to swim with dolphins are a multi-million dollar industry that also take the mammals out of their habitats in exchange for big money.

O’Barry, who has been an activist for dolphins since he concluded work on Flipper, introduced director Louie Psihoyos to the dolphin trade that is secretly going on in Taiji, Japan. Their strategy in making The Cove, which opened in select theaters last Friday and gets a wider release on August 7, was to find out exactly what was going on a hidden part of the coast in Taiji, and to show it to the world.

The film is full of tension and heartache. The mixture of dolphins and adventure lead Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers to call it ‘a cross between Flipper and The Bourne Identity,’ but that’s really just a catchy tagline that doesn’t do the film justice. The film follows a group made up of divers, prop-artists, a film crew and activists who sneak into a restricted area on the coast of Taiji by night to reveal an area where dolphins were being captured and turned into meat for public consumption, to the surprise of the Japanese public.

It all looks very dangerous, but Psihoyos says it was ‘a lot hairier than it looks.’ During the team’s time in this part of Japan they were constantly being tailed by the police, and they felt workers who were catching the dolphins were trying to get them arrested, so they had to watch their steps. ‘It’s hard enough to make a film under the best conditions,’ said Psihoyos during the Q&A after the screening in Toronto on Tuesday night. ‘None of us were filmmakers, we were a bunch of guys on a mission.’

For O’Barry, the hardest part about making this doc was staying focused on the cause and isolating the people who were slaughtering dolphins in the cove from the rest of the Japanese people. He feels the ‘boycott Japan’ movement in the interest of saving the whales comes across as ‘racism’ because, when he talks to civilians in the country, they generally are not aware of what their government is doing, and don’t agree with it.

Psihoyos doesn’t hold much hope that his film will screen in Japan during its first run in theaters, as he’s already experienced rejection from the Tokyo International Film Festival, which showed interest in the film, particularly because it fit the fest’s environmental theme, but turned it down. Psihoyos said he just got the rejection from the festival on Tuesday and he speculates that, after previously having talked to an unnamed official for the festival, it could be because the festival is funded by the government.

However, there will be continued attempts to get the film to the Japanese people. Last week an unnamed US businessman gave the filmmakers $70,000 to dub the film into Japanese.

While Psihoyos expects they will have to be back in Taiji in September, trying to stop the dolphin slaughter (which runs from September until March each year), O’Barry is hopeful that this film, and the word-of-mouth marketing it will get from viewers, will make all the difference.

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