The must sublime scene in the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove is not the dramatic and heart-wrenching footage that the film leads up to with every frame. It’s a scene in which the filmmakers and their team of elite activists infiltrate the hills around Taiji, Japan, at night to place an entire movie studio’s worth of specialized hidden cameras to secretly record the slaughter of hundreds of dolphins the following day. Out in the bay, the animals spend their last night in an area hemmed in by nets to prevent their escape. From high atop one of the hills, a cameraman uses a high-tech thermal imaging camera of the sort used by the military to look down on the water. The dolphins can be seen as slim gray forms just below the surface of the water, swimming in a clockwise circle, like a swirl of commas.
Although you know they are doomed, there is something peaceful and calming about this haunting image. You can’t help but think about the circle of life, how the ebb and flow of one creature’s actions and decisions impact not only other creatures but all of nature, usually in ways that are never apparent.
The Cove’s director, Louie Psihoyos is pleased at that reaction. Far too often, he says, the greater message of his film gets lost in the horror of its final scenes. Over the past several weeks, the Boulder-based director has been flying from coast to coast screening the movie and collecting a slew of awards—in addition to the Oscar it won on March 7, The Cove won 24 awards and was nominated for five others—but more important to him than the plaques and honors is the chance to remind viewers that The Cove is about so much more than the inhumane and pointless slaughter of thousands of dolphins. It’s about how humanity has lost touch with its connection not only to other species, but to nature itself. He likens its message to that of James Cameron’s blockbuster, Avatar. And it’s not as big a stretch as it first sounds.
“It’s not just about killing dolphins,” Psihoyos says, speaking from LA where he was on hand last month to pick up a slate of awards, including from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Producers Guild. “That’s like saying Moby Dick was just about trying to kill a whale. There are all sorts of bigger issues around that, and that’s what we try to focus on. …You can overlay the story of dolphin hunting to the story of trying to protect anything. Primal forests, landscapes that are being lost, mountaintops that are being snapped off over in the Appalachians. All of these stories have a very, very similar theme, but at the root of it is that you’re really trying to get people to take a stand on the environment.”
To no one’s greater surprise than his own, Psihoyos is one of those people. A former journalist who worked for National Geographic, among others, Psihoyos found himself transformed during the course of the movie from a
dispassionate observer into an activist. Watching The Cove, it’s not hard to understand why.
The film follows the efforts of Ric O’Barry, one of the most famous animal trainers of all time, to undo a murderous practice that he feels partly responsible for initiating, however unintentionally. O’Barry trained the dolphins who starred in Flipper, a 1964 TV series that might have been short-lived (it ran for just three seasons) but whose popularity spawned an interest in dolphins that led to an entire industry dedicated to capturing and training them.
Anyone who has ever swum with the dolphins in a seaside resort or watched a dolphin show at Sea World has contributed to the industry. What O’Barry learned from his immersion with these mammals is that they are not only smart but also self-aware, a discovery he made after taking a television to the dock so that the dolphins could watch themselves when Flipper came on. Even though five identical-looking animals played the title character’s part, the dolphins could tell when they themselves were on the screen and not one of the others.
He also learned that despite how they look, dolphins are not smiling at their fate of being made to amuse the humans who capture and confine them; he believes that dolphins can become miserable enough to commit suicide, which he says happened with one of the Flipper dolphins.
O’Barry committed himself to dismantling the industry he inadvertently helped start, but it was too late. Dolphin hunting is big business. Nowhere is that more true than in Taiji, where fishermen herd dolphins by the thousands into a series of coves using sound waves. Once they’re trapped with nets, the bottlenose dolphins are separated out for sale to resorts and animals shows. The rest are butchered. The final step in this hunt takes place in a secluded cove surrounded by steep hills.
From the coastal road, you can see the cove’s inlet—but not what happens there.
Psihoyos originally planned for the documentary to be about O’Barry, whose presence in Taiji never goes unnoticed by the local police, who tail him relentlessly. His efforts to expose what happens in the cove are belligerently thwarted by obnoxious fishermen and townspeople, some of whom try to provoke fistfights in the hope that activists will be arrested and legally barred from returning. The film crew was likewise harassed. Originally, the footage of police stops and chase cars was only going to be included in a “making of” DVD extra. It soon became clear that the filmmakers had become part of the story themselves, and their efforts to document the activities in the cove became part of the narrative. It also served to spawn something of a new genre, what Psihoyos calls an “eco-thriller.”
“There are two stories that I see as the DNA of The Cove,” he says. “You have Ric O’Barry’s story where he has this amazing arc of being the most famous dolphin trainer in the world to becoming the premier dolphin advocate in the world. The guy basically made Flipper popular and then he tears it down for the past 40 years of his life. It’s an amazing story. Then you have our story about trying to get in, and our DNA sort of gets locked up with his, (and) we become activists.”
Very smart, very thorough activists, in fact. One of the movie’s greatest strengths is that it spares no expense to expose what happens in the cove and to explain why it’s such a pointless—and potentially dangerous—waste. The slaughtered dolphins are sold as food even though they contain toxic levels of mercury, thanks to global pollution from burning coal and other sources. The producers flew a DNA expert to Japan with a mobile lab to prove that dolphin meat was being pawned off on consumers in local markets as whale meat. And they uncovered a plot to feed it to Taiji’s schoolchildren.
In order to infiltrate the cove, they employed Industrial Light & Magic, a special-effects company founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas, to rig up high-definition cameras in fake rocks and fake birds nests. They utilized the skill of world-class free divers to swim into the cove to place acoustic recording equipment. They used military-grade thermal cameras to scan the hillsides for fishermen’s lookouts, and rigged a camera onto a remote-controlled blimp for aerial shots.
The film crew looked for help from people from around the world, but leaned heavily on resources found in Boulder. Psihoyos founded the Oceanic Preservation Society there, one of a few ocean-centric institutions that somewhat incongruously find themselves located in the land-locked high-altitude city. Boulder also hosts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is home to David Reardon, who started Google Oceans, as well as a population of more recreational divers than one might expect to find in the mountains. One of those divers is Jim Clark, the philanthropist and computer whiz perhaps best known for inventing Netscape and founding WebMD.com. It was with Clark’s encouragement that Psihoyos started the Oceanic Preservation Society with the mandate to make a difference in the world.
“When Jim says ‘just make a difference,’ it’s a little bit different than when your sixth grade English teacher told you that,” Psihoyos says. “I felt like there was a huge responsibility to hit it out of the park because he raises the bar so high for everybody around him. So that’s kind of how we got started.”
He also turned to Boulder residents Brook Aitken to be the director of photography and Joe Chisolm to help keep track of what turned out to be a mountain of gear. Both men quickly adopted Psihoyos’s mindset—that what they were doing was more important than making a movie.
“I had no idea what the actual final product was supposed to look like,” Chisolm says. “I was motivated by the fact that these are my buddies and I was excited to go diving and sailing and go run around all these countries.
“But once I was in Taiji for the first time, it changed. There’s just an immediate impact upon you. After going there and hearing the animals that, the next morning, were all slaughtered, that was the moment that I knew that this film was going to make an impact,” he continues. “It already had an impact on me and I felt that it really had the potential to make some change. There’s no part of me that I would have described as an activist five years ago.”
As Psihoyos is quick to point out, the activism goes well beyond dolphins.
“It’s not just about saving dolphins, it’s about saving us too,” he says. “The only way that we can save the life of a dolphin now is to prove that we’ve made its environment so toxic that we shouldn’t be eating them.”
That environmental toxicity has also destroyed reefs, fouled the atmosphere and ruined the land. With the lens drawn back as far as it will go, The Cove is really about how humans need to change their ways to prevent an utter environmental collapse.
“If we did a movie about all the things that are wrong, it would be like a shopping cart full of disasters,” Psihoyos says. “People would be sort of inundated and it wouldn’t be a very hopeful message. Instead, by sort of wrapping these bigger issues around the smaller issue like Ric O’Barry, you’re able to sort of realize that one person can make a difference and that together maybe we can change the world.”
Psihoyos walks his talk. About halfway through filming The Cove, he commissioned a study to see what sized carbon footprint the movie produced.
“It was 646 tons of carbon we were putting into the environment, and that carbon has a lot of mercury,” he says. “I realized that it was one of the worst things you could do for the environment is to make a movie about it.”
Psihoyos installed 120 solar panels on the Oceanic Preservation Society. They produce 140 percent of the energy the building uses.
“All the post production was done using solar energy,” he says. “It’s probably one of the greenest movies ever made and we did it right in Colorado. I’m really proud of that.”
There’s much to be proud of. Just a year ago, The Cove entered and won the Sundance Film Festival. Getting to the Oscars—much less winning—was a possibility that no one seemed to want to jinx by talking about it too much. But on Feb. 2, Brook Aitken’s cell phone “started ringing off the hook” when the nominations were announced at 7am.
“We were in,” he wrote in an email while on his way to Patagonia for his next project.
“Wow, my heart just started to pound hard through my chest. At the same time a calm feeling came over me. I think that was relief. It feels like we have been yelling and yelling and now people can finally hear us.
“Our cause will be heard by the masses.”