The acclaimed enviro-doc The Cove (review) opens Friday at the Egyptian. Its director, Louie Psihoyos, came to town for SIFF in May to talk about his film, which has been drawing gasps and accolades from Sundance to Cannes. In addition to being a filmmaker and diver, Psihoyos is executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society, so he has some strong views on how we--dolphin eaters and non-dolphin-eaters alike--are poisoning the ocean and the fish (and mammals) that inhabit it.
So why, I ask Psihoyos, haven't Japanese filmmakers made a documentary about the capture and slaughter of dolphins in their homeland? Why did it require a Western crew of covert, guerilla-style moviemakers to capture such shocking footage? Are there no native environmentalists to do the job? "Zero," he replies. "There's very few environmental organizations, if any. The very strongest environmental organization that they have there has about the power of a knitting club. It's a cultural thing that's really difficult to understand."Psihoyos is a strong critic of the Japanese whaling and fishing industries and the officials that supposedly regulates them. He says, "There's a lot of corruption, because the whaling and dolphin industry are heavily subsidized. It's also controlled partly by the yakuza. There's a lot of self-interest in trying to keep it alive. Because there's tens of millions of dollars being funneled to the mafia types and the whalers. And probably to the government officials as well."
Will The Cove later be shown in Japan? Psihoyos says he's talking to distributors in that country: They're scared. They're worried about the violence that might precede a screening. They're worried about the fishermen committing suicide out of shame. Because it's pretty damning."
Here in the West, he notes, we have groups like the ASPCA, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club, traditions from Silent Spring to The Jungle that have shaped social attitudes about our food and environment. In Japan, says Psihoyos, the issue of killing mammals to eat isn't such an issue. "I like to leapfrog over that," he admits. "It's inhumane to animals--that's obvious. But it's also an inhumanity to man issue when you're serving up these toxic animals to unsuspecting mothers and fetuses."
What he means is the high concentration of mercury in dolphins--which are actually members of the whale family--and other top-tier ocean predators. (Tuna and salmon can also carry dangerous levels of the heavy metal.) "These animals are toxic beyond belief," says Psihoyos. "The irony is that what might save dolphins and whales is because they're so toxic now, because of what humans have done, is that no one should be eating them."
As his movie relates, "We had dolphin meat tested that was being served in the school system, found out that it was toxic. [The Japanese] did their own test, and they found that indeed the Westerners, the round-eyes, knew what they were talking about. That's how we're trying to crack this. We want to put an immense amount of outside pressure on. There's two levels to affecting shame in Japan. The first is outside pressure. Then the change comes from the inside.
"We've already stopped, directly, toxic dolphin meat from being served to schoolchildren. And the film's not even out yet. So I'm hoping that once the Japanese people see it, it'll stop the genocide."
By genocide, he's referring to what the fishermen in the small coastal village of Taiji, Japan consider a seasonal harvest. The best dolphins are sold to aquariums and marine parks like SeaWorld. The rest are killed, packaged, and sold for food.
The second order of business, Psihoyos admits, may be easier to stop: "We wanna shut down the cove. To me The Cove is not just the cove, but a metaphor of what's going on with the oceans. A way to wrap your arms around what the issues are in a very visceral way."
Which he knows is fine for us moviegoers in the West, who don't eat dolphin meat and already want to save the environment.
But, Psihoyos continues, "The other, bigger issue that affects us all is that we're taking wonderful, beautiful, sentient animals out of the wild, and then teaching them to do stupid tricks for our amusement. And I think that says more about our intelligence than theirs. There's no educational component at all. We teach kids it's okay to subjugate these animals for our amusement."
So will The Cove really put SeaWorld out of business? "I'm an incorrigible optimist," he answers, "I think that it can be, if not stopped, then the film can put a dent in their market."
It helps his cause, of course, that The Cove has a very entertaining guys-on-a-mission structure to it, one that evolved on the fly, says Psihoyos. "It happened organically. We went out to find out what was happening in the cove. So I did set up this team, like this Ocean's 11 team. We had basically, not filmmakers, but pirates."
Initially, Psihoyos recalls, he and his crew didn't intend to be on camera. But later, reviewing the night-vision footage they'd shot while sneaking into the killing grounds, "I had this hallelujah moment that maybe we should put ourselves in the movie. A buddy of mine out in Colorado, Hunter S. Thompson, once told me, 'Never be afraid to put yourself in the story.'
"The making of it is just as exciting as what we're trying to get after. Basically, the movie's set up as a thriller--a heist movie. One of the problems with documentaries is it's like you're taking medicine. In this movie, there's cops, there's bad guys--it's a wonderful hybrid of genres that I love. I like to think it's the result of my watching too many Jacques Cousteau movies and James Bond movies as a child."