Review #435 - The Cove (2009)

Director: Louie Psihoyos
Plot: 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.

Genre: Documentary
Awards: Won 1 Oscar - best documentary. Won Audience Award and nom. for Grand Jury Prize (Sundance).
Runtime: 92min
Rating: PG for disturbing content.


Louie Psihoyos and his team of guerrilla filmmakers go deep into the town of Taiji, Japan to expose a dark secret and shoot footages of nightmarish images which would become integral to the film’s power to provoke massive outrage. The Cove, an award-winning documentary which has premiered to great acclaim in numerous independent film festivals worldwide, is courageous filmmaking at an admirable level, a compelling example of cinema used as medium by activists to prompt appropriate and effectual action.

Taiji is a lovely town with elegant, cultural architecture. But one can sense a sinister mechanism working behind this beautiful fa├žade when DIY signs are put up to render specific areas around a lake off limits to people or that photographs cannot be taken at some spots. After all, this is the infamous town (now we know) which slaughters an estimated 23,000 dolphins annually. The film tells us Taiji is the sole supplier of live dolphins to marine parks all around the world where they are trained to entertain audiences. The rest it could not sell are killed brutally and some are sold as meat disguised as ‘expensive fish’.

Dolphin meat has notoriously high levels of mercury which can cause brain damage. Ignorantly, it somehow becomes a standard food item in school lunches in Taiji. A calamitous health issue waiting to happen? Town officials say it is part of their culture, but the filmmakers make a strong argument against that reasoning through interviews with citizens in cities like Tokyo whom expressed utter shock when they are told that dolphin meat is part of their delicacy. How can it be a culture when almost no one knows about its practice?

In a brave mission, the filmmakers plant underwater and land cameras discreetly and strategically over a site assumedly used as the slaughter ground. The next day, a sea of blue turned into a sea of red as dolphins are rounded up and stabbed to death by fishermen, their cries for help silenced forever. Psihoyos captures this horrible sight and includes it in the climax of The Cove. Who is to blame? The higher authorities of course, whose awareness and refusal to act allow such inhumane acts to flourish.

For most parts, the film is well-crafted for a documentary. Viewers follow the crew into the literal heart of darkness through ‘night vision’ and ‘thermal imagery’ cameras, fully conscious of the dangers that lie ahead. These scenes also happen to be the most tense in the film because every possible way the mission could go wrong has a fair chance of going wrong. The Cove is also beautifully shot with serene and inspiring images of free-spirited dolphins interacting among themselves as well as with humans in the wild. Juxtapose this with the slaughter sequences and you have a gut-kicking film that gets you incredibly riled up.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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