Sunday, October 17, 2010
superfluous and belated movie review of the month: the cove
i'm not much of an animal buff. i've never owned a pet and i find the anthropomorphization of animals a little creepy. with that out of the way, the cove won the oscar this year for best feature-length documentary. i will not hazard a guess as to whether this film deserved that award since i think the oscars are kind of useless (except as the basis for yet another pool i will lose), and i didn't watch the other nominees. nonetheless, even an ignoramus like me can see that this film is very well-crafted: suspenseful storyline, compelling characters, beautiful scenery, all with a dramatic-without-being-overwhelming score.
the central character was a dolphin trainer who trained the original flipper--or shall i say flippers, since five different dolphins played the part. he greatly regrets his role in popularizing the capturing and training of dolphins for human entertainment. he tears up on several occasions when remarking on the intelligence and sensitivity of dolphins, and why they must not be kept captive. thus, he is now a full-time activist. his aim is to end the dolphin trade in taiji, a small fishing village in japan.
unbeknownst to me, the dolphin trade is very lucrative; one live bottlenosed dolphin can fetch around $150,000. for this reason, taiji is extremely insular and shuns any outsiders who seek to substantiate rumors that the local fishermen regularly slaughter thousands of unsold dolphins in a secret cove. long story short, the documentary traces a team of activists who are determined to draw attention to this act by obtaining visual proof of the slaughter.
the larger problem, beyond the sheer cruelty of the killings, is that dolphin meat is sold throughout japan for human consumption. often, the meat is disguised as whale meat, a coveted commodity. more alarmingly, taiji officials are trying to convince school districts to serve dolphin meat as part of their compulsory lunch programs.
this gives the filmmakers an opportunity to weave in the destructive effects of human actions. we have overfished many species to near-extinction; our disregard for the ecosystem at large means that the largest ocean-dwellers are full of mercury, and by consuming them, we are, in fact, slowly poisoning ourselves.
those are the film's brightest and most compelling spots.
on the flip side, i grew very uncomfortable at how the japanese were portrayed. the activists wryly note that they are all white and, as a result, very conspicuous in this remote japanese town. (was this an unanticipated problem? why didn't they attempt to recruit at least one asian person to their team?) the japanese fishermen's inability to speak english is mocked more than once, although you never see the team of white activists even attempting to speak anything other than english.
the activists dismiss any notions of the alleged "cultural importance" of this practice. to underscore this point, they interview japanese people in the streets of tokyo about this ritualized dolphin slaughter. the interviewees are shocked upon hearing this news, and emphasize that this is not accepted practice in japan. you have to wonder, though, would any japanese person admit to a white, english-speaking camera crew that they not only knew about this, but also condone it?
the filmmakers do show how implacable the locals are, and there is footage of the activists' attempts to cajole and negotiate with those in taiji. indeed, the fishermen rejected the activists' offer to compensate them with an amount equal to their profits from the dolphin trade. nonetheless, the activists' generally defiant and arrogant attitude makes you wonder whether those attempts were made in good faith.
there is no question that the systemic slaughter of any sentient being is cruel. however, an aggravating sense of superiority among the activists emerges throughout the film. one of the activists notes with condescension that the japanese fishermen are probably unaware of just how intelligent bottlenosed dolphins are, and this may explain their cavalier actions. the activists almost seem to affirm the most negative stereotypes about americans: they are smug, domineering and blind to their own shortcomings. no matter how repugnant the act may be, other countries don't seem to feel entitled to invade america to film how it treats its own animals, especially those kept and slaughtered for human consumption.