Every year, off the coastal village of Taiji (太地), Japan, dolphins are captured and sold to marine parks all over the world. But there is another place in Taiji where many more dolphins are herded and disappear: a place called The Cove. Few outside eyes have ever seen what happens in The Cove, and a ban on filming and photography is zealously enforced. Retired dolphin-trainer turned activist Ric O'Barry, who suspects mass slaughter, becomes the catalyst for an undercover operation to film the dark deeds done at The Cove.
The Cove belongs to the higher ranks of documentary filmmaking. It has a great story to tell, and tells it well; it is a witness to the main events; its heart is in the right place. The interviews and statistics are interesting, yet the pictures have a way of speaking for themselves. And the bonus is that it stimulates on many levels. As much a hi-tech thriller and "clash of civilizations" piece as nature documentary, at the same time it manages to be a moving character study, a challenge to apathy, and a chronicler of official absurdity.
The protagonists and interviewees repeatedly face the question: why does Japan need to target and kill over 20,000 dolphins every year? We get the usual excuses, in increasing order of credibility: it's something to do with 'research'; it's something to do with 'tradition'; it's something to do with people feeding themselves. (Haven't you heard? Dolphins, not people, are behind the global collapse in fish stocks.) All of these are put up and seen for the sham that they are. But the activists are savvy enough to know that although the facts are on their side, animal rights isn't the headline issue that it used to be. So they frame the argument solely in terms of self-preservation. And when Japanese dolphin meat is shown to be saturated with mercury, far in excess of any level allowable for humans, they finally find what they are looking for.
To see The Cove is to have the increasingly rare experience of a couple of hours well-spent at the cinema. (I wouldn't have changed a thing — although surely, with all the surfies on screen, there was room for a few bars of the Dead Kennedys' Kepone Factory in the segment on Minamata.)
The Cove provokes reflection on areas beyond its stated focus: on the loss of privacy and the ease of subversion in an era of hi-tech convenience, and on the workings, or lack of them, in today's political institutions. There is a compelling structure here, too: as the film builds to its horrific climax, an interviewee throws out a line that puts it all in sobering perspective. Japan's massacre of cetaceans has nothing to do with science, tradition, or food; it's only about keeping and flexing power in the international arena. At a time when nationalism counts for less and less every year, why sacrifice people to keep those parochial feelings alive, when other higher mammals will do just as well?