Saturday, March 27, 2010

Film develops awareness about the slaughtering of dolphins and whales

THOSE Boy's Own adventurers from The Cove have done it again. The lads who won an Oscar for exposing dolphin culling in the Japanese town of Taiji have just busted a Santa Monica sushi restaurant for illegally selling endangered whale meat.

Fearless Western filmmakers: two. Evil Asian dolphin killers and whale eaters: zero.


There's just one problem. Actually there's a whole bunch of problems, but let's start with the issue of animal magnetism. Why is it that some species attract so much more compassion and activist attention than others? Are dolphins and whales more intrinsically worthy of being saved than less glamorous animals such as the Markhor goat and Chatham albatross? Or have they -- like human stars -- achieved their celebrity status as a result of serendipitous circumstance, genetic luck and media spin?

At least some of the answers lie in The Cove, the 2009 enviro-mentary directed by former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos. This movie opens with the story of Ric O'Barry, who caught and trained dolphins for the cult 1960s TV show Flipper before having a Damascene conversion. This turnaround, he says, was the result of watching one of the Flipper dolphins commit suicide in his arms rather than endure another moment of captivity.

O'Barry's admirable but obsessive concern for small cetaceans is universal but his specific fixation is the Japanese port town of Taiji. Here, local fisherfolk muster dolphins so international buyers can select the most photogenic, Flipper-esque specimens for their dolphinariums. Rejects of this aquatic casting coach are then herded into an isolated cove protected by snarling guards before being speared to death and sold for their mercury-filled meat. The Cove's covert footage of this carnage sparked international outrage.

Like daytrippers seduced by the colour and movement of the novelty whale boats in Taiji, it's easy to be taken in by the film's worthy and ostensibly ideologically innocuous externals. Most reviewers fawned, with The New York Times gushing over its audacious and adroit powers, and Time magazine calling it spectacularly compelling. Earlier this month, it was awarded an Oscar for best documentary feature.

This "living, breathing movie", however, has a dark secret. Deep in its hidden nooks and crannies, innocent facts, evidence and balance are rounded up and slaughtered like so many dolphin babies on their way to a bento box.

Oh, all right. This is obviously an over-the-top and insane claim. But it's not so different from The Cove's portrayal of Taiji's fisherfolk as callous murderers; the sort of vile bastards who think nothing of greeting Free Willy and Flipper with chopsticks and soy sauce. These men are depicted as every dolphin's worst nightmare despite being at the bottom of the dolphin "slave trade" food chain.

The fisherfolks' status as villains in the film is in direct and inverse proportion to the saintliness of the dolphins, which are subjected to a sickeningly saccharine anthropomorphism. They're repeatedly framed as non-human people whose kindness, intelligence and ability to enjoy sensuous tummy rubs from spunky freedivers with strap-on tails may even surpass our own.

No references are made to the animals' interest in infanticide, macho brawls and blow-hole sex. Presumably the filmmakers thought these facts might adversely affect their subjects' ratings on the concerned world's all-important cute-o-meter.

Unfortunately, overplaying or inventing dolphins' human-like traits in this context carries the implication that ugly, stupid, surly creatures -- creatures whose mouths aren't shaped like human smiles -- aren't equally entitled to continuing existences.

Few of us will find the time to develop deep, quasi-spiritual connections with every endangered species on earth (particularly if that species happens to be the eyeless blind cave beetle or the frumpy eastern bristlebird). But it'd be a shame if we directed our conservation efforts only to those planetary dwellers that looked pretty or could playfully balance coloured balls on their noses.

The other big problem with unexamined assumptions about creatures' killability is that such judgments aren't consistent across cultures and therefore run the risk of cultural insensitivity or outright racism.

In The Cove, O'Barry is appalled that visitors to Taiji can watch dolphins perform while eating them. But the pairing of these activities seems on par with Australians chucking kangaroo steaks on barbies in national parks. Dolphin defenders may point to The Cove's massacre scenes -- to the squeals of distressed beasts and a seething ocean of blood -- arguing that the manner of killing is as problematic as the killing itself. But, once again, industrial-strength double standards are at play here.

I've visited Australian cow, pig, sheep and chicken abattoirs and can attest that these are bloody disturbing, too. And at least the Taiji dolphins enjoy free-range conditions rather than battery farming before they meet their brutal unmakers.

So while The Cove's emotive and mono-sided treatment of its topic may help a smattering of one species in one part of the world, its helpfulness to the big picture planet-saving project is likely to be negligible. If anything, its aggressive cultural stereotyping may make Japan even more recalcitrant in the international stand-off over whaling.

It's also worth considering why so many cinemagoers are happy for such blatant polemic to be billed as documentary. This Trojan horsing of propaganda has a long history and is something most of us are quite cluey about.

But it's as if everyone turns off their bullshit detectors when they turn on The Cove because it involves appealing mammals rather than Michael Moore.

Perhaps Psihoyos gets away with it because -- like his oceanic subjects -- he's easy on the eye. What isn't attractive is the self-righteous and school-boyish glee he and his sanctimonious chums take in using their big boys' toys to outwit the Japanese and score their king-hit carnage footage.

This, for me, is the reason the most telling scene in the movie isn't the one with the dying dolphins. It's the shot where a Taiji fisherman -- a guy the filmmakers nickname Private Space because they say these are the only English words he knows -- is confronted by a wall of filmic technology and, refusing to go down without a fight, raises a tiny hand-held camera in his defence.

Private Space is not a likable character but this futile gesture of defiance does raise the question of whether the filmmakers, with their military-quality gear, and the dolphins, with their celebrity cheersquads, really are the underdogs in this picture.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"