The Cove Connects Popular Culture to Ecological Crimes

The Cove
There seem to be a lot of environmental documentaries coming out these days (or that are out already), and I’m trying to make note of some of them here at Indications (more to come next week). It’s frustrating, though, to know that I will probably have to wait for the DVDs to come out before I can see many of them. Theatrical distribution is just so limited for these films, which is a shame, but also a reality of the commercial media system. So I wait, and I speculate.

One such film that has had a lot of publicity is The Cove, which opened last week in select cities. Not only has it had excellent reviews, it also seems to have won a number of film festival awards. The cove is about the annual slaughter of roughly 23,000 dophins and porpoises that takes place in Taiji, Japan. Here is the synopsis from the official web site.

The Cove begins in Taiji, Japan, where former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry has come to set things right after a long search for redemption. In the 1960s, it was O’Barry who captured and trained the 5 dolphins who played the title character in the international television sensation “Flipper.”

But his close relationship with those dolphins — the very dolphins who sparked a global fascination with trained sea mammals that continues to this day — led O’Barry to a radical change of heart. One fateful day, a heartbroken Barry came to realize that these deeply sensitive, highly intelligent and self-aware creatures so beautifully adapted to life in the open ocean must never be subjected to human captivity again. This mission has brought him to Taiji, a town that appears to be devoted to the wonders and mysteries of the sleek, playful dolphins and whales that swim off their coast.

But in a remote, glistening cove, surrounded by barbed wire and “Keep Out” signs, lies a dark reality. It is here, under cover of night, that the fishermen of Taiji, driven by a multi-billion dollar dolphin entertainment industry and an underhanded market for mercury-tainted dolphin meat, engage in an unseen hunt. The nature of what they do is so chilling — and the consequences are so dangerous to human health — they will go to great lengths to halt anyone from seeing it.

Undeterred, O’Barry joins forces with filmmaker Louis Psihoyos and the Oceanic Preservation Society to get to the truth of what’s really going on in the cove and why it matters to everyone in the world. With the local Chief of Police hot on their trail and strong-arm fishermen keeping tabs on them, they will recruit an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style team of underwater sound and camera experts, special effects artists, marine explorers, adrenaline junkies and world-class free divers who will carry out an undercover operation to photograph the off-limits cove, while playing a cloak-and-dagger game with those who would have them jailed. The result is a provocative mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure and arresting imagery that adds up to an urgent plea for hope.

And here is the trailer:

OK, so this is clearly a documentary with some drama and what looks like a compelling narrative, which is always nice (and not that common in your typical earnest eco-doc). The film is important because it demonstrates the clear connections between our representations of Nature (e.g., “Flipper”), our Nature-oriented popular cultural practices and institutions (e.g., MarineLand, SeaWorld), and the living world itself (the slaughtered and captured dolphins). Furthermore, the film connects the harm to the dolphins with harm to people through the mercury laden meat. While acknowledging that humans use dolphins, the film is nonetheless invoking non-utilitarian values; the dolphins and porpoises are shown as have intrinsic value, intelligence, and a right to be free from human exploitation. This is an exciting film for many reasons.

If, by any chance, any of you have seen the film, please let us know what you thought.

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About Mark S. Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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3 Responses to The Cove Connects Popular Culture to Ecological Crimes

  1. Brian Rugen says:

    Good news. In a surprising, last-minute decision, the Tokyo International Film Festival has decided to screen The Cove at the festival in October.

    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20090916x2.html

  2. Mark Meisner says:

    Thanks for your comment Brian. When I was writing the post, I came across something about how they were having trouble getting it screened in Japan. Do you think I can remember where I read/saw that? Of course not. If I do remember, I’ll post another comment here. Thanks for reading.

  3. Brian Rugen says:

    I am hoping the film is screened here in Japan–where it really needs to be shown.

    I recently contacted an acquaintance at Surfrider Japan to see if they had any information regarding possible screenings here. Unfortunately, they are not interested in supporting the film–for several reasons.

    One of the reasons is that, in their words: “We will not support any action that disrespect Japanese culture.”

    This position partly stems from the fact that, according to SJ, the group of professional surfers (and others) who came to Japan to protest 2 years ago displayed shockingly rude and insensivitive behavior at a local fishmarket–they went into the fish markets, the story goes, while traders and fishermen were working and apparantly spit at them…and then recorded the video after they became angry. And, unfortunately, no translations were provided, so the locals at the market were a bit lost as to why these foreigners were suddenly yelling at them.

    To what extent any of that is true, I have no idea. What is true is that there is some resistance to the film here (and, as an extension, the cause?) from potentially influential groups/people–as a result of a kind of (“protest”) communication (or lack thereof).

    Anyway, I look forward to the film. Who is the intended audience, by the way? Japan? The West? ….

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