'Cove' reveals real-life environmental thriller


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One observer says it's a bit like "The Twilight Zone."

If you didn't know better -- or see the footage showing fishermen slaughtering dolphins -- you would assume that whales and dolphins were revered in Taiji, Japan.

But if you watch the documentary "The Cove," you see the ocean waters run red with the blood of dolphins. It's so thick it looks like the lagoon has been polluted with drums of red paint.

"The Cove," directed by Louie Psihoyos and opening today at the Manor theater in Squirrel Hill, is a documentary that borrows elements from caper, thriller and other fictional films to tell the story of the atrocities happening in a lagoon off the coast of Japan.

'The Cove'

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Taiji is the largest supplier of dolphins to marine parks and swim-with-dolphin programs around the world. Dolphins are lured into the cove, captured and sold for $150,000 each, while the remainder -- roughly 23,000 a year -- are killed and their mercury-tainted meat sold as food. Often it is purposely mislabeled as whale meat when, in fact, it's from a bottlenose dolphin just like Flipper.

Yes, Flipper, with the TV theme song "They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning. No one you see, is smarter than he ...."

You cannot overestimate the influence of "Flipper," the 1964-68 TV show about the pet dolphin of two boys, sons of the chief ranger of Coral Key Park, Fla.

A marine mammal specialist named Richard "Ric" O'Barry helped to capture the five dolphins who shared the role of Flipper, and he lived in the house shown near the dock in the series. He was heartbroken when the lead dolphin, named Kathy, died in his arms in what he considers a virtual suicide.

O'Barry, interviewed extensively in "The Cove" and who guided the filmmakers in their expose, says he never planned to be an activist. "Now, if there's a dolphin in trouble anywhere in the world, my phone will ring."

"The Cove" shows how a team worked under the cover of darkness -- and nearly constant surveillance along with the threat of arrest, detention or bodily harm -- to plant cameras and underwater microphones to document the nefarious activities in the lagoon.

Although slowed by some necessary but inert International Whaling Commission meetings, "The Cove" plays like a thriller with O'Barry as the onetime dolphin trainer turned liberator and enough gadgets to rival a water-logged James Bond.

"The Cove" advances some notions -- dolphins can suffer from anxiety and are "self-aware" and know when their offspring are being slaughtered in the cove -- that are hard to prove, but this is advocacy filmmaking.

If you set aside the financial and cultural reasons behind the cove, you are still left with the sight of dolphins being herded into the waters near shoreline and hauled into boats alive or speared until dead.

The dramatic quotient is a bit much (this isn't about Rwanda, after all, although mercury poisoning can be lethal or life-ruining), but it proves that filmmakers and perhaps filmgoers can make a difference in the world.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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