Using state-of-the-art equipment, a group of activists, led by renown dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, infiltrate a cove near Taijii, Japan to expose both a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.

Bold and brutal filmmaking at its best.

Louie Psihoyos is a bold, brave documentary maker. Not just because he enlists a misfit crew of dedicated scientists, technicians, special effects artists and aqua-athletes to take on the brutal practices at the 'heart' of the Japanese fishing industry; nor because his filmmaking efforts are dangerous and risky (which they are). Psihoyos is a courageous filmmaker because he has made his film about his journey – the documentary filmmaker documenting himself.

This trend to feature the filmmaker front-and-centre has been the undoing of many fine factual films in recent years, in particular two self-centred Australian ego-epics - Julian Shaw’s Beautiful: The Pieter Dirk-Uys Story (2007) and Scott Millwood’s Whatever Happened To Brenda Hean? (2008). Both chronicle the emotional, photogenic journey of the young filmmakers, and both do so at the expense of a full realisation of the intended subject matter of their films.

Psihoyos begins his intrepid on-camera journey in the seaside village of Taiji on Japan’s southern coastline. Central to the local population’s income is the dolphin – the shallow-water cetacean that – unlike its larger cousin, the whale – is not protected by international laws. Annually, thousands of the creatures are herded into a small bay by the Taiji shore; a small number are purchased by zoos, aquariums or theme parks, to jump through hoops for hordes of cashed-up tourists.

However, the vast majority of dolphins, those remaining after the trading is complete, are corralled into an alcove out of the view of the foreshore, where they are held until nightfall to be slaughtered by men in kayaks with spears. 23,000 are slaughtered annually; often hundreds by daybreak.

It is widely known that the massacres occur: the sea runs red for days, blood has turned the rocky shore rusty brown – but nothing has never been captured on film. The unforgiving terrain, nightly patrols and bullying local government officials put a stop to any attempts to protest or document the practice. It was in Taiji Bay that Hollywood starlets Hayden Panettiere and Isabel Lucas were beaten with oars while staging a peaceful protest in 2007.

The Cove is Louie Psihoyos’ story of the lengths to which Louie Psihoyos went, to document one of the most senseless and horrific acts man could conceivably commit against a fellow animal. A crucial back story involves Richard O’Barry, creator of the hit television series Flipper. O’Barry himself now acknowledges that his creation amounted to an act of pure, murderous betrayal against the ocean’s most intelligent creature. By his calculations, the global impact of Flipper has resulted in the enslavement of hundreds of show dolphins and the culling of hundreds of thousands more.

The film is effective and deeply engaging on many levels. As an indictment of the degree to which the Japanese fishing industry and its governing bodies will go to protect the outdated practice of cetacean slaughter, it is scathing; as a revelation concerning the levels of mercury in the toxic frozen dolphin meat that sits unsold in Tokyo supermarkets, it is bewildering; as a high-tech adventure story, chronicling how Psihoyos’ and his multi-layered mission of military precision set out to record the nightmarish killings in Taiji Cove, it is riveting viewing; as a love letter to the dolphin, it is breathtaking.

Sadly, it is greatest success is as a horror film.

Louie Psihoyos gives a very human face to his documentary – his own. It’s an achievement even the master of documented self-aggrandisement, Michael Moore, fails to do (Moore is just the wiseass narrator, albeit one who stands front-of-frame). The Cove is an exhilarating, infuriating, heartbreaking monument to how bad and how good mankind can choose to be. Like most truly great documentaries – Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974) and Alan Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) – it calls to action change in the future by exposing the horrid facts of the past.


Watch 'The Cove'

Wednesday 9 June, 2:25am on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)

USA, 2009
Genre: Documentary
Language: English
Director: Louie Psihoyos

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1 hour 31 min
In Cinemas 20 August 2009,
Wed, 12/02/2009 - 11