I knew going into this film that I would be disturbed, upset, and that I would probably cry. I didn't know that I would also feel inspired and motivated. The Cove (2009) is a documentary about the unnecessary, cruel, and secretive dolphin slaughters that occur in Japan every year. The story starts with Ric O'Barry, the former dolphin trainer for Flipper, who feels a personal responsibility to stop the international trade in dolphins because it was Flipper that started the world's fascination with them. He enlists the help of filmmaker Louis Psihoyos and an Ocean's 11-style crew who use every high-tech video toy available to film the slaughters, which, up until this point, have been hidden from public view in Taiji, Japan. Each year, as the dolphins migrate past this small fishing village, they are herded up. Dolphin traders from around the world come in and pay upwards of $150,000 per dolphin. Those who aren't chosen, are herded into a secret cove where they are inhumanely slaughtered. None of them are spared.
O'Barry is an incredibly sympathetic character and I think a viewer would be hard-pressed not to feel the painful weight on his shoulders. I think it's easy for those who don't place environmental issues in the forefront of their lives to dismiss "saving the dolphins" as just one more hippie-dippie cause. But, through O'Barry's eyes we come to understand the intelligence of these animals and the unique way that they interact with humans, making their deaths all the more horrific. O'Barry doesn't come across as some crazy activist. He doesn't make wild claims or rely on touchy-feeling arguments about why these animals need to be saved. He is presented as a very normal person, who benefited from the exploitation of animals and who is now trying to rectify that situation. He (and the filmmakers) use scientific and common-sense logic to prove that these slaughters are cruel and unnecessary. They are not a part of Japanese tradition. They are not necessary to feed people. They are not necessary to "cull" the herds.
What the film doesn't do however, is condemn Japanese people or culture as a whole. It is very careful to avoid generalizations and to focus on the specifics of the issue. What they discovered in researching the film, was that even in Japan, no one knows this is going on. In interview after interview with randomly selected people on the street, people were shocked and dismayed that these events were occurring in their country and they didn't know about it. The film includes the stories of two council members of Taiji who very bravely stand up and condemn these practices. These people and their interviews are filmed with every bit as much compassion as those of O'Barry.
As far as the style and technical aspects of this film, it is one of the best documentaries that I've ever seen. The storytelling is near flawless and the arc makes it difficult not to be pulled in. Visually, it's spectacular. It uses infrared cameras, underwater cameras and sound recorders, hidden cameras, and more. This style is something that we've become so accustomed to in big-budget Hollywood films, but that we don't usually see in docs. The style is made even better by the fact that the storytelling and the interviews don't suffer because of them. Everything works together in concert.
Without spoiling the ending, I will say that it closes on a very inspirational note. O'Barry demonstrates non-violent, poignant interventions that brought me to tears. I left the theatre hoping that I could be that strong. That I could care about something so much that I would dedicate my life to it. That I would be brave enough to stand up and say, "no, stop." Whether you consider yourself an animal-lover or an environmentalist or not, I think everyone should see this film. How we interact/use animals is a topic that we just do not talk about enough in our daily lives. We should.