Interview: director and star of The Cove
It has won awards left right and centre. It stunned the crowds at the Sundance Film Festival and, recently, the London Film Festival. It picked up a Best Documentary Award at the Environmental Movie Awards in LA this month, as well as running the gauntlet of the green carpet at this year’s Action For The Earth-themed Tokyo International Film Festival. But Ric O’Barry and Louie Psihoyos’ stirring call to action The Cove, about the slaughter of dolphins and whales in Japan and the knock-on repercussions man’s destructive attitudes towards our environment have, is more than about winning awards . It is about educating people into activism. It’s about saving the planet. With the film gaining momentum on the way to what is sure to be Oscar noms come New Year, and the annual Japanese dolphin hunt now under the close scrutiny of the world’s media, Sound Screen sits down with the doc’s director Louie Psihoyos and marine mammal expert Ric O’Barry to discuss why “the dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest deception”, how the film has been received around the globe and just how they plan to change the world.
In the Greek era, harming a dolphin was punishable by death – why have we lost that respect?
Ric O’Barry: “You see this ring (Ric holds out his hand, one finger proudly displaying a ring emblazoned with a carving of a human being saved by a dolphin). That was a common coin of the day, in 225 BC. And there are many stories of dolphins saving the lives of people, and not just in the Greek era. There are aboriginal stories in Australia, all the way through thousands of years right up to today and that is something very special. If a human being saves the life of another human being, that is altruism, and this is something that we reserve for humans but in fact dolphins have done that throughout history too. We don’t have any other stories of animals coming out of the jungle and saving the lives of people. This behaviour is communication, and it is the first thing that attracted me to dolphins. When I was 3 years old, standing on Miami Beach my mother told me stories of dolphins saving the lives of people and that suckered me, and it still impresses me.”
Dolphins have learnt 90 sign language signals from humans, what does that say about their ability to communicate, and why don’t we listen?
RO’B: “There have been a lot of experiments, John Lilly [a physician, psychoanalyst and philosopher, and counter-culture icon, who carried out experiments into consciousness often involving studying dolphin communication] started it all, he was the first dolphin researcher, and he believed that dolphins were more intelligent than us. They have a larger brain than humans and they have been here sixty five million years while we have only been here a couple of million years, so if you assume that the brain is more than just ‘excess baggage’ that we carry on this trip through time and space, when it comes to dolphins there is definitely somebody home. I have come to believe though that they are not more or less intelligent, but that they are just simply different.”
How did you come to find out about the cove and the story of what’s happening in Taiji?
Louie Psihoyos: “I hadn’t heard of Ric O’Barry before. I went to a marine mammal conference in San Diego featuring 2000 of the world’s top marine mammal scientists and there was supposed to be a keynote speaker at the event, Ric O’Barry, but at the last minute the sponsor of the event, SeaWorld, wouldn’t let him talk. I was curious so I called Ric up because there had been all these dry PHD talks and I thought, “Why can’t the most interesting speaker come and talk? Why are SeaWorld preventing him from talking?” He was going to talk about the world’s largest slaughter of dolphins and how it relates to the captive dolphin industry. Now I had never heard of the captive dolphin industry or, really, Ric O’Barry. I knew he had done Flipper [O'Barry trained the five dolphins used in the filming of the 60s TV show] but I had never heard of the slaughter of dolphins, especially in this day and age and in a developed country like Japan. Ric said: “I am going to Taiji next week, do you want to come?” I said, “I’ll have to catch up with you! What I didn’t tell him was that I was taking a 3-day crash course in how to make a movie.”
So how did the shooting of your first film go?
How do you feel about the film being described as “a maritime Dirty Dozen”?
LP: “We always wanted to make a film that would be entertaining, first of all because for a documentary to be entertaining is tough, usually when you see them it feels like you’re taking medicine or eating your vegetables.”
RO’B: “I was there when it was shot, when we did the covert stuff, and I thought “How do you make that entertainment?” Because when people go to see a movie, they make a commitment, they leave their house, they get in their car, they drive through traffic and go to a parking lot and buy their ticket, they expect to be entertained and it is a very entertaining movie.”
LP: “We were making a film about the cove and about Ric O’Barry’s story, but at the same time we started putting together this Ocean’s Eleven-type team to penetrate the cove, and then we started thinking it would be cool to document that as well. It was almost as if there were two separate movies going on at the same time, one that was going to be the DVD extras, and one which was The Cove.”
So how did this Ocean’s Eleven-style team come together?
LP: “Ric told me he needed a Navy SEAL team or better to get into the cove, and so I thought ‘Well I don’t know any Navy Seals but I know someone called Mandy-Rae Cruickshank who’s better than a Seal – she can hold her own breath for six and a half minutes and can go down to 88 metres on her own power. And so her and her now husband Kirk Krack helped us plant the underwater cameras and it was Charles Hambleton, my director of Clandestine Operations, who said “let’s get this military grade thermal camera.” It’s not legal to bring it out of the US but we needed it to find out where the guards were and what the movements of the police who were tracking us were. When we got back to America the editors said, “This should be in the film.” In fact, Pierce Brosnan wrote me a few months back to say that The Cove is one of the most exiting spy movies he has ever seen!”
What were your reactions to the footage you filmed in Taiji?
LP: “Well, there was a UK director I was sitting with at a film festival and I asked him what sort of films he made. “I make horror films,” he replied, and I hate horror films, but he then asked me what kind of films I make and so I said documentaries. He then asked what the film is about, and so I started talking and I suddenly realised “Hey! I have made a horror film!” But we took our cues from Hitchcock, if you look at the film you think you’re going to see a film with dolphins being killed and it’s not that bad. It’s like in Psycho, you think you’ve seen a woman being killed but actually you didn’t see anything. I’m not saying that it isn’t two minutes that will burn your retinas [the footage the team shot in the cove in Taiji is unveiled at the climax of the film] but this is a Disney version of what actually happens at the cove. I took out all the really bad stuff!”
Apart from the graphic nature of the footage, what else was left on the cutting room floor? There were reports that a conversation between two of the fisherman discussing killing a mother and calf had been omitted?
LP: “Well, it wasn’t so much what they were saying. They were killing mothers and calves and pilot whales, and the ones that were still alive were coming back through the blood and trying to rescue them. There is something quite heartbreaking about that, and something really quite gruesome, but I didn’t want to see that stuff. I didn’t want people to have to go through that; I wanted to show enough of it so that they got the idea but it was more about the power of suggestion rather than being in your face. I spent two and a half years to get this down to two minutes that people could see.”
The Cove trailer
The film shows that there are two victims to the story – the dolphins in Taiji, but also the people being poisoned through the consumption of highly poisonous dolphin meat, much of which is sold under fraudulent packaging…
RO’B: “We have to get our energy and our electricity from somewhere, and at the moment it mostly comes from coal, but the mercury that is produced by the coal-fired plants lands in the oceans, is transformed into methylmercury [a bio-accumulative environmental toxicant] which then goes up the food chain into dolphins, and not just into them but into tuna and swordfish and so on too.”
LP: “If you go the Japanese minister for Public Health and Welfare site right now and type into the search bar ‘pregnancy’ and ‘mercury’ the first thing they recommend to a pregnant woman is a bottle nosed dolphin. Meat from a bottlenose dolphin can have between five and five and a half thousand times more mercury than is allowed by Japanese law. How do you justify that? To me it is an indefensible position. How much poison is good for an unborn child? [Levels of mercury in the environment caused by man's activity are rising at a rate of 1.5-3% per year and meat for sale at the Okura markets near Taiji was found to have more than 5000 times more mercury than the health advisory level of 0.4 parts per million].”
RO’B: “But it is not just a Japanese problem, it affects people around the world, right here in London too. If you went to any sushi store or restaurant in town, and bought tuna or swordfish and got it tested and then published the results, you’d be shocked. Most of it is 20, 30, maybe even 40 times the legal limit! In Minimata [the city of Minimata was the site for a highly controversial environmental disaster in which the pollution of the city's bay with mercury from industrial activity carried out from 1932 to 1968 resulted in over 1700 deaths], which is where mercury poisoning first showed up, the government covered it up because governments protect corporations not people. Don’t wait for the governments to go to the sushi restaurants and test it for you because it isn’t going to happen.”
Were there any times during the making of the film that you feared for your safety?
LP: “Yeah, and there still are, I am actually more scared now than I was during the making of the film. Going to the Tokyo Film Festival, I was worried about being Polanski-ed. The right wing in Japan is really protesting the film because they have supported the dolphin hunt and whaling and they are terrified of the world seeing what they have done. The film exposes some bitter truths and they are really getting nervous now. The LDP was a very corrupt oligarchy that supported whaling and dolphin hunting, and it was the same government that covered up Minimata [the Japanese Supreme Court convicted the government of helping cover up the Minimata tragedy], and they have already lost power [the LDP, the Liberal Democratic Party, was voted out in the elections in August of this year] and so they feel like this film, associated with their demise, will take them down further into the abyss, and I hope it does.”
What have been the reactions within Japan to the film?
LP: “One Japanese girl who saw it on the festival circuit came up to me and burst into tears saying, ‘I am so ashamed’. I said, “Honey, I am an American, I know all about shame!” We had a very corrupt regime for a long time and it brought down America and American self-esteem, but we voted them out and showed you can change things. And that’s what this movie proves, it shows that one person can make a difference but if you put a few passionate people together, they can change the world. A month later, the Japanese people voted their government out too.”
Has that had any effect on the film’s reception?
LP: “It would have been impossible for this film to be seen while the LDP was still in power. In fact, the Tokyo film festival rejected the movie. One of the directors of the film festival wrote to me and said ‘Given this year’s theme at the festival, it would be hypocritical of us not to show The Cove. This year’s theme was the environment, and they’re doing a green carpet rather than a red carpet but the festival gets its money from the government. So two weeks later he wrote back to me and said, ‘Sorry, we can’t show The Cove,’ but then the government changed and so two weeks after that he wrote back again and said, ‘Yeah, we can show it now! [The Cove screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival and Louie participated in a post-screening Q & A session despite protestation from the right at the film's festival inclusion and reluctance by the festival itself to publicize or endorse the film.]
RO’B: “We now have a copy in the Japanese language, not subtitled but with Japanese voices, and we will be putting that on the Internet so that everyone can see it. But when I showed the footage [of the cove] to 100 people on the sidewalk in Tokyo not one of them knew about the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world which was taking place in their country. There has been a blackout on all dolphin stories in the Japanese media because the government controls the media and the government doesn’t want this information out. It is probably a very slippery slope for them because if you go to Japan, seafood is everywhere. We eat it once a week or so, but they eat it everyday!! And there are huge implications for society made aware of the fact that all their food is poisoned.”
LP: “We aren’t going to win this on an animal rights issue, it is going to be the mercury issue that wins it, because it’s not just man’s inhumanity to animals, it’s man’s inhumanity to human beings too!”
How has the film been received around the world?
RO’B: “I have been to countless screenings of the film, although I have only seen it once, but I go for questions and answers afterwards, and at every single one of them, there has been a standing ovation, and every competition it has entered, it has won.”
LP: “Right, it has been getting standing ovations everywhere – Paris, Abu Dhabi, Helsinki, America, New Zealand, just everywhere! I think it is more for the idea and the notion that people can make a difference, that’s what people are realising. We want to inspire a legion of activists, not just on this one issue, but for people to realise that the oceans need our help right now and that the environment needs our help right now.”
What do you want people who are ‘inactivists’ to take from the film?
LP: “Just to realise that we are doing what no wild animal would do, we are fouling our own nest, and that we are doing it by the simplest of actions every day. I sat on the fence too but we are running out of time, we only have a couple of decades to change what is going on. If you sit there doing nothing you are actually working against us!”
The Cove is out now via Vertigo Films. For more information on the film and to how to get involved visit: www.thecovemovie.co.uk
By Alasdair Morton