Blood in the water

My housemate has spent a few years working in the not-for-profit sector, and recently landed a job as the Australian Coordinator for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Due to this, and with the promise that I would write a review, I scored a handful of free tickets to the Sea Shepherd sponsored preview session of The Cove at Nova Cinemas last Wednesday.

I?m not averse to environmental activism; I?m actually slightly ashamed that I don?t get involved in quality campaigns more often, or engage more conscientiously with how my personal choices impact on the environment. But I?m also subject to cynicism about the impact of environmental activism on the public with big business and mainstream media?s tendency to stereotype it as the domain of hippies and celebrities with more money than sense. Perhaps this is less prominent than it used to be, with widespread acceptance of the threat of global warming, deforestation and similar issues. Nevertheless, I think activism often suffers from a perception of condescension and kneejerk politics-for-the-sake-of-it that make it difficult for well-intentioned campaigns to gain traction.

This film is something else. The Cove is a documentation of a group of activists? efforts to photograph and expose the mass slaughter of dolphins in a wildlife sanctuary in Taiji, Japan. From the very minute they arrive in town, the film crew find themselves under surveillance. They are tailed and interrogated by police, harassed by fishermen and locals who want them out of town, preferably in jail, in order to prevent the exposure of what occurs in the secluded cove of a bay protected by barbed wire fences and fishermen who crawl the hills at night, armed with knives.

?I do want to say that we tried to do the story legally,? says director Louie Psihoyos in the opening sequence, neatly summing up a sense of frustration with bureaucratic and political process that pervades the narrative. The covert, guerilla-style tactics that the filmmakers are required to employ, not only to capture the footage itself but to prevent the project being compromised by government and business interests in the region, result in The Cove feeling more like a thriller than a documentary. But that doesn?t mean information is left by the wayside in favour of an exciting story. On the contrary, in a finely-struck balance between research, narrative and personal testimony coupled with incredible footage, the film manages to document, inform and engage without losing momentum or narrative tension. The action is truly gripping and the revelations serious and disturbing.

This is quite openly an activist film, but it feels neither exaggerated nor uninformed. Rather, the activists involved exude a sense of respectful, intelligent engagement with both the animals whose welfare they defend and the audience itself. A lot of the credit for this must go to the presence of Ric O?Barry, the former trainer of the animal cast of 1960s television show Flipper, whose work sparked worldwide demand for performing sea mammals, and whose personal relationship with these very same animals has resulted in decades of activism against it. The film in general gives ample space to examining the relationship between dolphins and humans, and the emotional journey that many of the crew went through in the attempt to infiltrate the Taiji cove. The audience is invited into this relationship without reservation, the result of which being that when the footage from inside the cove is finally shown, the emotional impact leaves the audience reeling.

A thought-provoking film, both absorbing and distressing.