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Dolphin Confidential: Docu-Thriller 'The Cove' Exposes Slaughter

By Sara Vizcarrondo

DocuDays Los AngelesRichard O'Barry trained the original dolphin for the hit TV show Flipper back in the 1960s. Following the show's popularization of dolphins as smart, human-friendly sea life, dolphinariums and dolphin parks sprang up on the international landscape--to the horrifying detriment of the animals on display. After O'Barry turned a hobby into a highly successful career specialization, the fruits of his labor developed into an exploitative labor trade, victimizing and often harvesting dolphins for staggering profits. Once he realized the steady degeneration of the dolphin trade from an educational enterprise into an industry of cruelty, he not only changed his path, he went from being the world's most famous dolphin trainer to the dolphin trades' most despised activist.

Louis Psihoyos, director of The Cove (Exec. Prod.: Jim Clark; Prods.: Fisher Stevens, Paula DuPre Pesman) also lived a double life of sorts. His earlier work as a photographer led him to meet O'Barry, and the type of resourcefulness and adventure-seeking required for his nature photography provided a clear and easy transition for his work on The Cove.

Part activist doc and part spy thriller, The Cove (out July 31 in select cities through Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate and Participant Media) doesn't simply demonstrate the high-impact activism of its creators and its subject (O'Barry); it depicts the trajectory of a man who built himself the American Dream, and then, witnessing its consequences, had no other choice but to set about deconstructing the effect of his efforts, from start to finish.

Documentary: Capturing footage of the cove in Japan was its own special ops mission, and that's how you represent it in The Cove. Did you present the conflict this way to sell the subject, or do you feel there's something inherently appropriate about the telling the story of the cove like a spy film?

Louis Psihoyos: We were actually doing a making-of film. The thermal-grade camera that we were using couldn't capture video, but we made it [capable of capturing video] because Charles Hamilton, our director of covert affairs for OPS [the Oceanic Preservation Society] said, "Let's do a ‘making of' video. We'll have thermal cam anyway, to track the movements of the police and the lagoon, so let's run video through it because it might be interesting." One of the first nights we set up the hydrophones, the police started coming down the walkway. We were recording all the sounds and radio chatter between the three groups in the cove and when we brought it back to the editors they said, "Jesus! This is like the Ocean's Eleven team." Then we started to say, "OK, but how do we tell the story without putting ourselves in there?"

But this thriller component was a way to get into the movie so it didn't feel like a documentary. I didn't want to make a normal documentary. I'm not really a filmmaker, so I didn't think there was any danger of making a normal film, but we thought, once we married the "making of" with the footage we had, it became a thriller. That's what I like about the film. The way it's constructed, it feels like a thriller. It's a hybrid that's resonating with audiences. From the opening line--"I just want to say, we tried to tell this story legally"--I think people are in. You [know you] are going to see something you don't normally see.

D: The Cove 's distributor, Roadside Attractions, is kind of avoiding referring to the film as a documentary.

LP: The "D" Word, yeah. I think there's a reason for it. People see the film--I got a comment that they "forgot it was a documentary"

D: What do you mean they "forgot" it was a documentary?

LP: In the sense that they were trying to figure out what genre it was. It had crossed the line where it had become this hybrid for them. It doesn't feel like a documentary. It bridged this gap. It's somewhere between Delta blues and rock and roll. Where does it cross that line?


Four dolphins jump up out of the water as a boat of onlookers watch
From Louie Psihoyos' The Cove, which come out July 31 through Roadside Attractions, Liosgate and Participant Media.



D: Rick, you mentioned that the Mayor of Taiji, the Japanese city in which the dolphin slave trade and massacres are taking place, once gave you the key to the city. When was this, and in what context?

Rick O'Barry: That was in 1975. We were putting together the largest musical event in Japan. Went on for three or four days. Went out of San Francisco, in fact. Governor Jerry Brown went with us. It was really because of Dr. Clifford Uyeda, the president of the Japanese American Citizen's League. He's a pediatrician and he called me about this problem. He said there were a lot of Asian-American children being beat up on playgrounds in San Francisco because of the strategy being used to save the whales. See, the big [whale advocacy] groups pooled their money and took out full-page advertisements in American newspapers reading "Save the Whales. Boycott Japan." So, it wasn't saving any whales; in fact, the people in Japan didn't even know the boycott was going on. But young Japanese-American children knew. They were being called "Jap Whale Killers." Dr. Uyeda gave me this information, so we went to Japan and put together a huge benefit concert called "Celebrate the Whales."

The Japanese are very xenophobic, ever since Perry and the black ships went there in 1896 and forced them into trade. They still don't trust outsiders. So when you say "Save the Whales" you draw a line. "Save them from who? From us?" And then you get, "Well, you don't understand us. We do this and you do that." But "Celebrate" the whales? Well, we can do that.

We weren't for the boycott. It's a blanket indictment of racism towards the Japanese people. We don't support that and we aren't doing that here. We're isolating the individuals who are causing this problem--isolating them from the rest of Japanese society. And I think this film will do that if it gets before the Japanese people. The Japanese people don't even know this (the dolphin slaughter) is happening.

LP: There was a major distributor who wanted to distribute this film in Japan, but his excuse not to do it was, "I didn't realize there was so much national pressure from the government not to have this film seen." He also said that he was worried the fishermen there might commit suicide if it was out because they'd lose so much face.

D: It would be a minefield for any distributor. Has it been?

LP: It's a minefield, but you don't step into the minefield; people will die because of it. It's a huge issue. There's inhumanity to animals happening on an epic scale, but there's also inhumanity to man because people are knowingly eating this toxic dolphin meat and saying everything's OK. If you go to the website for the Japanese Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor, they have recommendations for pregnant women to eat bottle-nosed dolphin.

D: What inroads do you have for distributing in Japan?

LP: Luc Besson has picked up the film for distribution in France, and he also has a distribution company in Japan; he's only a third partner in it, but he's going to see aobut trying to convince his other two Japanese partners about distributing over there. He doesn't have a lot of faith that's going to happen...

The Tokyo Film Festival called today. They said that, ironically, the theme of this year's fest is the environment. Not the top director but one of the directors of the fest said it would be hypocritical of us not to show that film.

D: People are getting sick and dying, so it's a foolish to cry "identity politics" in a situation like this. But doesn't the position from which we're reporting here pose a challenge? Could this have come from the inside?

RO: This is information they don't have. Sure, they can make up their minds whether they want to buy dolphin meat. The Japanese people actually have the right to know. Article 21 of their constitution offers them that right. So the government and the media are acting illegally by keeping this information from them.

LP: No, but it's really hard to effect real change here. This guy Nakamai, head of the fisheries in Japan, he had this information for a year; he didn't do anything about it. There are thousands of people being poisoned by this meat. Like Rick says, they're not falling over dead, but [Nakami] knows he's instrumental to their health. The minister of health knows that dolphin meat can be anywhere from five to 500 times as toxic as are admissible by their recommendations. He's complicit in this whole thing.

RO: It's going to take a tipping point and this film could be that tipping point.

D: You say a great thing about anthropomorphizing of dolphins--that it's basically derogatory--like an insult to bring them down to our level. In tandem with that, you bring up the 1971 "Save the Whales" campaign, which inspired activists by letting them hear the whales sing. How do you feel your film is encouraging audiences to perceive dolphins?

RO: We have a utilitarian view of dolphins and of nature and that's something I think the film points out.

LP: I hope it will change our perception so we don't view them as caged animals to do stupid tricks for our amusement. That's not a sign of their intelligence; it's a sign of ours. I think when you see the film you'll be repulsed by dolphin shows from now on. When I've been diving with whales and dolphins in the wild before, they feel sorry for us. They look at us and see us floundering and seem to say "Poor things. They can't even swim."

--For more information on Richard O'Barry's organization or to get involved, please visit

Sara Vizcarrondo is a film journalist writing and editing in San Francisco, California.