Friday, July 31, 2009

THE COVE: destined for classic documentary status; filmmakers' Q&A

Once in a great while, a documentary comes along that does it all: informs, activates and entertains. Many docu-
mentaries manage this to some extent, but few -- if any -- have done it as skillfully, with as much full-
throttle excitement, as THE COVE. This is activism of a very high order: a film that pulls you in via its shocking subject and events, fascinating characters and super-smart

handling of both style and content. Expect to emerge from the experi-
ence shaken and angry.

Over the years many documentaries that set out to explore -- and help right -- wrongdoing have been able to manage this to a certain degree (Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line comes most quickly to mind). Usually, the filmmaker lays out a scenario that explains the problem (with talking heads, some of which may try to de-explain it by and giving us the "other side") and then goes about attempting to "get the goods" on the bad guys, often with only partial success. The Cove gets these goods in spades, and its "money shot" is as sensational as it is ghastly.

You've probably heard that the film's subject is the small, beautiful but deadly cove (shown below) in Taiji, Japan, where, over the years, tens of thousands of dolphins have been slaughtered with stunning, bloody regularity. Why? Several reasons: the capture and sale of dolphins to amusement parks world-wide, together with Japan's tendency toward over-fishing and the "competition" that dolphins give its fishing industry. The Japanese government is clearly culpable here but every Japanese official interviewed on record waves away any responsibility (and any knowledge of same is kept secret from the Japanese citizenry).

For years now, marine mammal specialist and former "Flipper" trainer Richard O'Barry has been on a mission to stop this slaughter, and the movie tells his story. It also shows how the film's director Louie Psihoyos (seen above with his striking, silver-gray hair; anyone remember Jeff Chandler?) and his crew became involved and how, together, they accomplish what no one has so far been able to manage: recording the ugly slaughter.

The film has plenty of thriller elements, provided by producer Fisher Stevens, shown right, after he came aboard the project. It was Stevens' idea to merge the film itself with the "making-of" movie that the director was shooting simultaneously, thus providing a very different film -- one that tracks events as they happen and nets a number of jolts, thrills and surprises. (You can find out more about how the movie came into being in the Q&A round-table interviews, transcribed below -- with Stevens and Psihoyos, and then with O'Barry -- held shortly before the film's opening.)

The commercial release of The Cove, it is believed, will be the beginning of the end of this slaughter. We can only hope, along with the filmmakers, whose achievement -- it's a splendid, horrifying one -- opens today, distributed by Roadside Attractions, on screens in New York and Los Angeles, with another 70 theaters across the country to be added in the coming weeks. You can find release dates, with cities and venues here.

(All photos below are courtesy of The Cove.)

TrustMovies and a half dozen other film bloggers met with three major players in The Cove's filmmaking team -- director Louie Psihoyos (pronounced to rhyme with "sequoias") and producer Fisher Stevens, and then with the man who first took the action that set the ball rolling, marine mammal specialist Richard O'Barry -- in a conference suite at New York City's classy Loew's Regency Hotel. It was Mr. Stevens who took the first question regarding how he'd become attached to this movie.... (Note: Blogger's questions appear in boldface; filmmakers' answers in normal type.)

Fisher Stevens : I got involved about a year and a half ago -- through Jim Clark, founder of Netscape who started Silicon Graphics and Web MD among other things. He was a good friend of mine and of Louie's. We’ve all been diving on Jim's boat a number of times. When I first met Louie, I asked what he was doing, and he said, 'I’m involved in a making a documentary,' so on a later trip on Jim's boat, we screened the doc I had recently made, Crazy Love. And then six months later, Jim said, 'Look, I'd really like you to come aboard and help out on this epic journey that Louie is involved in.' I looked at some of the footage Louie had shot and was blown away: There was an amazing film here.

Our idea was to make this, not just a documentary, but also an action thriller. The ramifications of what The Cove stands for was much bigger than just the cove itself. So I brought on Geof Richmond who edited Sicko and Murderball, and Mark Monroe, with whom I had made another doc, Once in a Lifetime. Then we sat with Louie in Boulder, Colorado, and came up with what you’ve now seen.

A question to Louis: Where did you get this.. what seems like almost a lifetime calling?

Louie Psihoyos: I've been working in media, as a photographer for National Geographic for 18 years and as a photographer for Fortune for about five, where I met Jim Clark. Though I was a success-
ful still photographer, I feel like I’ve been walking in the wilderness until now. Filmmaiking is such a much more powerful experience. I wish I had started this 20 to 30 years ago! Like, for instance, I had never seen a businessman cry, certainly never working for National Geographic but I have seen every audience for this film react like that now. Crying and screaming and cheering and asking 'How and where do we go to help?' When Jim gave me the money to make this film, he said, “Just make a difference.” That's his philosophy He wants to change the way we think and live and work.

Ric O' Barry was supposed to be a keynote speaker at a conference I attended, then all of a sudden they pulled him off the ticket. The sponsor did this; it was Sea World. So I called up Ric and he told me about the dolphin slaughter in Taiji. I couldn’t believe it. So I took a three-day crash course on film-making, hiring a producer who showed me how to use the camera, and so on. Like everybody else, I watch films and see how they are structured. But I needed to learn the basics.

How many hours did you shoot?

About six hundred. With a feature picture, it's usually 50 or 60 to one hour that you end up using, but with cinema verité you shoot 200 to one.

How did this whole kind of sleuth undercover dimension to the film enter into it?

We were shooting two movies at the same time: the movie and the “making of” -- both at once. Fisher came along and had the idea of putting both movies together into one.

Fisher Stevens: I had never seen anything like this before. When I saw it, I thought, These guys are amazing. And because Louie was already a photographer, the look of the film was incredible. But I had to convince him to be in the movie. He didn’t want to. Originally none of the team were in the movie: Not Louis or Mandy or Kirk. Then we brought Mark Munroe in to kind of help plot things out. We were screwing around about getting a narrator, maybe like Bill Murray -- you know: do a kind of Steve Zissou - -but then we thought, why not make Louie the narrator. It’s perfect. It made such sense.

Louie Psihoyos: I didn’t want to be like a Michael Moore and call attention to myself. I come from a journalistic background. I wanted to keep myself out of it -- not being an actor.

Fisher Stevens: It's the "mercury" element of the story that was kind of key. And Louie said, "No matter what, we have to tell the mercury story. But there was like an hour’s worth of mercury -- big chunks of it -- and mercury is not the most dramatic thing. So we had to find how to incorporate it -- which was difficult but it became one of the most powerful parts. When it is revealed that they are considering feeding this fish full of mercury to schoolkids, and then when they manage to stop this.... It took a lot of finessing to get all that in.

Mercury?! Did Jeremy Piven ask for a private screening?

Fisher: He did. He actually did.

Louie: And I took over Jermey Piven’s apartment here in NYC, too! Weird coincidence.

Fisher: Piv is an old friend of mine, and when I went to see the show Speed the Plow, he said to me, "Oh, man, I‘ve got mercury poisoning. And I feel like crap."

I told him, 'I am doing this movie The Cove' (we were just cutting it then). He said, 'I’ve got to see it!' I did advise him not to leave the play, by the way. But he was really sick. I've had mercury poisoning myself, and so has Louie. I do know for a fact that Jeremy has very high counts of mercury.

How do you get this mercury poisoning – just from eating fish?

Louie: Eating fish that are high on the food chain. Mercury in the most toxic, non-radioactive element in the world. You do not want this in your system. It is very difficult to get rid of it. Eat lower-on-the-food-chain fish; these have as much Omega 3 but not nearly as much mercury.

Fisher: I was eating tons of sushi and tuna and was not feeling well at all. I had quit eating meat and was eating almost only fish. I went to a nutritionist and took these standard tests -- hair and blood -- and two weeks later out of the blue the NY Board of Health called me and told me that I had extremely high counts of mercury, and to not have a child for at least six months. So I immediately cut out all high-on-the-food-chain fish. They asked if I was eating sushi. Yes: three time day, and tons of canned tuna, too.

Louie: I went to Minamata, Japan, where the first big outbreak of mercury poison was in 1956. All the doctors there are very versed in all this. So I went there to interview them and met with them and took them all out to dinner. I had ordered, in advance of the dinner, sushi. Of course: what else? And none of the doctors would eat it. I asked, What’s with this. Japanese eat more fish than anybody: 66 kilos per person ever year, they eat their weight in fish. So the head doctor there told me, We did this experiment, where we ate tuna everyday, 200 grams, which is less than half a can, and the cheapest cut we could find. By the end of two weeks, our mercury levels had doubled. Once doctor dropped out of the study immediately. The other five pushed on, but they said, 'Let's get sushi-grade fish from now on.' So they did, and their levels went up eight times! The doctor then asked me, Do you eat a lot of fish? Sure, I said. That’s all I eat now. You better get tested, he told me. So I did, and my doctor told me I had 24 parts per million -- the highest level of mercury of anybody he had ever seen in Colorado.

Has it diminished now?

It has a half life in your body of 70-90 days. Through the chelation process I got it down. You can also get your blood filtered. But the easiest way is to lay off the large fish. In three months, my mercury went down to 12 parts per million, then three months later it was down to six, and now it's down to 3.

What about Salmon?

Louis: Salmon is about 1/20th.

Is this because salmon is in cleaner rivers than the ocean?

In every state there are Mercury advisories now. For a lot of different reasons. There is a lot of big turnover in lakes, and also now from all the heat. It is hotter now, so there is more microbiotic action. When the mercury comes down from the atmosphere, it goes into microbes, and it is thought that, because it is hotter now, the anaerobic bacteria eats it and digests it.

Even the doctor we interviewed -- Dr. Akino, to whom we showed the levels of mercury in the dolphin meat -- would not allow us to film him. He told us that the dolphins have higher levels of mercury than even did the fish in Minimata -- that started this whole thing. He said it’s a clear danger! But he gets his money from the government. It is very difficult to describe how much pressure there is from their government on doctors and on the Japanese media.

But the average person on the street in Japan does not know this is happening. But Sea World sure does!

We tried to get Sea World to talk to us. But they wouldn’t.

Does the Japanese government have any idea the effect this film will have on them? They will look like the worst country is the civilized world.

Well, let me give you this example: Fisher and I did a pubic service announcement in Japanese that we then put on DVD. Last year I was taking a plane ride down to this important conference in Santiago, Chile. To get the members to take a look at it. We knew the movie was coming out but that might not be for another year, so meanwhile, we wanted to alert them that tens of thousands of dolphins are dying needlessly and people are getting hurt due to these toxic levels of mercury. So I brought this DVD down to Santiago on the plane. I had a whole bunch of copies. I got on the plane for this a ten-hour ride from Dallas to Santiago. I was late and there were only a couple of seats left, so I sit down in one of the only empty seats and a minute later another guy sits down next to me. He turns out to be the boss, the actual boss, of the two Japanese guys we interviewed in our film. And here he is! He's a funny guy, with a good sense of humor, and I talk to him about this whole thing, explain about the film. I show him the promo of the movie. I told him the whole thing. He listened, he saw it all. I told him there’s this movie coming out that will make you and your employees and your entire country look horrible. And now he’s had a year, a year and a half, to do something about this. To do the right thing. And he did nothing. Nothing at all.

Fisher: It’s about these very few fisherman that are doing it, and the government knows it and is turning a blind eye.

Has anything new and positive happened since you made the film? I mean, from the point in the end credits where we are brought up-to-date? Has anything good happened since then?

Louie: No . Only that this movie is finally coming out. And there seems to be this tsumani of overwhelming positive pressure: People from Lithuania, Russian, from all over the world are signing petitions, writing in, trying to do something about this.

Fisher: We have sold the film in about 20 countries: France, Germany, all of them with good distributors. And a very nice and wealthy individual named Bobby Sager is paying for a Japanese dubbed version -- and we are going to find a way to get this out in Japan, if it's the last thing we do. Getting it out across the world will put pressure on Japan's government to stop this. We feel confident that something will change.

We open in 70 screens over the next few weeks . Four screens on July 31, then 25-30 more the next week , and then the following week 25-30 more. Hopefully more. So, if you guys keep writing about it and keep pumping it, that’s the key for us.

Have you gotten any word, reaction, backlash, from the Japanese yet?

The director of the Tokyo film fest saw it two weeks ago. He said -- given the theme of this year’s festival: the environments -- that it would be hypocritical of them not to show this film. But that we had to understand that it is the Japanese government who pays for the festival….

Given the subject of the film and that it is Japanese-negative, I would think that both China and Korea would be certain to show the film.

I think we’ve sold it in Korea, but in China, where everything is pirated…..

Are you going to eventually do what was done with Earth – put it on line for free for a period of time.

Fisher: We would like to make a little bit of money with this first.

Louie: Personally, I think when you give something away, that is what its perceived worth becomes.

Fisher: We want this to be sold as a film, as a thriller, rather than a preachy movie. You’ll be entertained, excited and enlightened. We want it in a theater, so that people will know they are going to see a movie!

This may be no joy to you at the moment, but I think The Cove will wind up being a classic film that people will watch, regarding the documentary form.

From your lips to god’s ear. But my whole goal in making movie is to entertain. entertain. We must have watched about 200 docs, but we still want to entertain.

Louie: My whole goal in making the movie is to change the world.

That’s the true nature of subversion: have people come to a conclusion with out knowing they were pushed. And then they behave differently as a result of this.

Fisher: Anyway-- all of you: thank you for everything!

After the Stevens/Psihoyos Q&A,
Richard O'Barry arrives and the questions begin anew....

You had been dealing with the problem of the cove in Taiji for a long time before the movie was made, right? Louie and Fisher just explained how they came into the picture....

Richard O'Barry: Yes, and when Louie showed up, I thought, 'Well, this will be helpful.' At first I thought, 'Maybe this will show up on TV at 3 am in the morning and a few people will see it.' And that’s where Fisher Stevens comes in. He said, 'Make this entertaining.' And he's the reason it is entertaining. When Louie called and said, 'Can I follow you around with my camera?' I said, 'Sure.' But at some point Jim Clark brought in Fisher, and there wasn't a real movie there until Fisher came aboard .

Who did all the cameras-in-the-rocks thing and the fake rocks being made?

Louis had all that done. But the bottom line is to make the film entertaining. Unlike a TV show, people have to stand in line, park their car, pay money. That means entertainment. Louis surrounded himself with very talented people.

Will any of you ever be allowed back in to this town again? Into Japan?

It is not the entire town of Taiji that is doing this. It's just a few individuals. I like the town, country -- Japan and the Japanese people. That is why I am opposed to a boycott of Japan. That is a form of racism and an indictment of the whole Japanese. Even the people of Taiji are not guilty. There are only 13 boats and only two men in each boat. Just 26 guys.

But they’re all millionaires.

No, just upper middle-class. They make a very good living.

One thing that’s troubled me: You mentioned that the underpinning of this slaughter is the selling of dolphins for profit. Why do they have to slaughter all the rest if they already have caught the dolphins to sell? The rest can’t all be for mercury-tainted food to give to Japanese school-children?

One day my wife and I were in Taiji, and the police took us in to the city fathers for a meeting: the first time they had ever sat down with westerners. We offered to subsidize them. I had a video camera but they said I could not use. I wish now I had just turned on the sound because I would have had this recorded: When we offered to subsidize them, we told them this: If you stop the killing for one year, we will pay whatever those 13 boats earn. They told us it’s not about money its about pest control. In other words, over-fishing is the real problem. So the government is telling them to do this.

I have asked those fishermen, and they say they don't want to do this. In fact most of the younger guys have already quit. The older guys now take over. I asked them, what would happen if you did not get the permit to kill the dolphins each year? They told me that, in those same months, September through March, then they would simply fish for lobster or crab. So not killing the dolphins would not be putting them out of business. The dolphins are being targeted. Because the fisherman want to kill their competition! Dolphins eat too much fish -- between 30 and 50 pounds of fish per day. Times 23,000 dolphins. So, kill this competition. But they don’t advertise this, they don't tell you this. Instead they come up with, 'Oh, you're a cultural imperialist. This is our culture, our tradition.' Which is not true, by the way. Overfishing is the real problem.

Did I miss this explanation in the movie?

It’s there, but it’s pretty subtle. They probably should have made it more important. But they had a real struggle – to get this whole story from 300 hours down to 90 minutes.

Were you aware of yourself as a character in the film? (Ed: That's Ric -- in disguise -- below, which is the way he has to look in order to get in and out of Taiji these days. He is also shown, out of disguise, third from right, in the third photo up from here....)

No. Not until I saw a cut of the movie here in NYC two years ago. I thought for example the other people -- Mandy or Kirk --for instance are much more interesting. I mean, this woman can free-dive 300 feet on one breath of air!

Is the next step then, to sensitize people to imagine what the dolphins' lives are like, that they want peace and quiet instead of being made to perform in these noisy Sea World kind of places? It’s no wonder then that they would rather kill themselves.

I think this film will do that. That’s why it’s the light at the end of the tunnel. I think people will now think twice before they buy a ticket to watch dolphins perform. I mean, this is a billion dollar industry. Two billion dollars alone in the USA -- profit. It’s based on supply and demand, just like any other product. If consumers can be educated, they will stop buying tickets. I’ve been saying this for 30 years. But there’s no way for them to get that education. Because Sea World – Anheuser-Busch – is the largest advertiser in the world. When you turn on the TV and are watching the SuperBowl or the World Series or even a small volleyball game in Miami Beach, you’re seeing that Budweiser flag above the American flag – it’s everywhere. And so you can’t get this info out to the public. Just a few days ago.... Well, I live in the Miami Beach area, and the film was playing just two blocks from my house. So I called the community newspapers, all of them, to get this info out to the public. They’re all owned by the same publisher with the same editor. They wont touch this story because they don't want to offend their client, the Miami Sea Aquarium. That's the proboem. It has always been the problem. But now it’s different. This film is going to be mainstream. People are going to see it. And then they will think twice before they buy a ticket.

How did you establish yourself as a dolphin trainer?

It goes back a ways to 1955, on Christmas Day. That was the day the Miami Sea Aquarium first opened. I went there, and I looked into the tank through the window..... An amazing sight! These dolphins, sawfish, giant groupers, sea turtles, all flying around. This kid was walking around, like underwater in slow motion, handing fish to all these creatures. It was so surreal. I said, 'When I get out of the navy, I want this guy's job.' And five years later, when I got out, I did have that job. But my job was not in that tank but on the capture boat, and I was capturing dolphins. That's how it started for me.

When you are capturing, and then working with dolphins, did you get the idea that they are smart?


So when did you begin to question your right to manipulate them?

Well, first off, I was in the military for years, and when you’re in the military you are trained not question but instead to do what you're told. Just do your job. So that was my mind set. You don’t question authority. It took awhile after I was living with them before I realized that there was something wrong with this. Even then, I didn't do anything about it. After all, I was buying a new Porsche every year. I was the highest paid dolphin trainer in the world. It’s real easy to put your blinders on. That was what we call it in that industry: Putting your blinders on.

Didn't anybody ever raise the questions to you: 'Do you think this is right?'

Yes, but not the people you’re working with. And the reason is that it's an optical illusion. People don't have the right information to understand. When you go to these parks, it’s a beautiful day, the family is with you, the music is playing, the sun is out, and the dolphins even seem to be smiling back at you. Unless we were hitting these dolphins with baseball bats, the onlookers wouldn't be able to understand the abuse!

The dolphins have no power when they’re in captivity. They are controlled by hunger, and so are controlled by their food. Depending on their size, they must eat between 15- 30 pounds of food each day. So unless they do things -- their stunts -- correctly, their food is withheld from them. The trainers call this "operative conditioning" or "positive reward." But from the dolphin's perspective, it's food deprivation, because if they don't cooperate, and sometimes they don’t, they don't get their food. Oh, they'll get food at the end of the day. But still, you're manipulating and controlling them.

The rest of the animals in the zoo don't perform. But dolphins do. They are the only animals who must do this. So captivity for them is more stressful than for any of the other animals. Their brain is one third larger than the human brain. A coldblooded snake in a zoo with a smaller brain is given more of a normal environment than are the dolphins.

The dolphins' environment is just water, the tank, and nothing else. Just a barren wall. If you did that to snakes, people would complain. How come people aren't complaining about the dolphins' environment? Because people are conditioned to think that they belong there!!

Do dolphins show anger?

Yes, they do. They will do what we call jaw-popping: They pop their jaw. That is one reason the Flipper show ended. Because the dolphins were getting angry at the people, at their getting in the water with them, and they were beginning to hurt them. There have been a lot of people hurt: concussions, broken ribs. Both trainers and tourists. These lawsuits are covered up, settled out of court. Dolphins will hit you with their tails, they’ll ram you and bite you.

Are dolphins smarter than human beings? Then why are human beings predominant?

Well, some people would tell you that they are, and others that they are not. I’ve come to believe that they are not more intelligent or less intelligent but they are just different. Human beings can't do any of the things a butterfly can do, or a caterpillar. So from their perspective, we are not very intelligent at all. I’ve struggled with this concept for years now, and have decided that "intelligence" is a man-made concept that doesn’t relate. We can’t do any of the things that dolphins can do. Our species has only been here for a very short time now. If you look at time as though it were the distance of a football field, the dolphins have been here the whole length of that field but we have not.

I notice on the IMDB that you have another movie in the works.

My son is developing Behind the Dolphins’ Smile.

Is this narrative film?

No, it’s autobiographical. My story has been optioned several times, but nothing has ever come of it. At Sundance, I must have been approached by a dozen or more filmmakers who wanted to do my story. But I leave my son in charge of that. I would rather stay focused on this: what I am doing right now.

1 comment:

Matt G said...

I remember seeing footage of this somewhere else -- so awful and depressing -- I hope this film leads to some real change.