This Year's Most Disturbing Film is A Documentary

Ransom Riggs

Back in the 60s, Ric O'Barry was a pioneer in the field of dolphin training. He captured and trained the five female dolphins who collectively played "Flipper" on the TV show of the same name, and spent almost ten years living and working with those animals. The Cove is partly the story of how Ric came to realize that dolphins were incredibly intelligent, sensitive and self-aware creatures, and that they suffered greatly in captivity, and how he has spent the last thirty years remorsefully trying to destroy an industry he helped create -- the one you see in action when you go to Sea World. (Did you know, for instance, that Sea World puts Maalox and Tagamet into the dolphins' food because they're so stressed out by captivity that they develop bleeding ulcers?)

The Cove is also the story of one little Japanese town, Taiji, that has (or had) a big secret. It's where a great many of the bottlenose dolphins that perform in hundreds of dolphinariums like Sea World across the globe are caught, and they can fetch a high price -- up to $150,000 per trained dolphin. But fishermen in Taiji capture many thousands of dolphin every year -- herding them from the open ocean into netted pens in a hidden cove just north of town -- and the ones that aren't sold into captivity (that is, the majority of them) are slaughtered for their meat in the most horrific way imaginable, stabbed and hacked to death by fishermen with harpoons in an orgy of killing that turns the whole bay a deep red. But the most baffling part about it is that 1) most dolphin meat has way more mercury in it than is safe to eat, and 2) most Japanese people don't want to eat dolphin meat. As the documentary uncovers, the truth is that they're eating it but they don't realize it, because the meat is repackaged and sold as exotic whale meat in Japanese supermarkets. The only rationale for the Japanese government issuing 23,000 permits to kill dolphin every year (and abetting the meat-switch cover-up) is that the economies of a few small towns have come in part to depend on this bloody trade, and that, almost to spite the many other countries who banned the killing of all cetaceans (whales and dolphins both) back in the 70s, Japan is simply refusing to back down out of some misguided kind of nationalistic pride.

Anyway, I'll get off my soapbox now. But even if you don't agree with its politics, The Cove is absolutely riveting -- it's sure to be a front-runner for this year's Best Documentary Oscar and critics have been calling it "Flipper meets Bourne Identity," if you can imagine such a thing -- the covert operations that Ric and his team must stage in order to get footage of the slaughter is risky, high-tension stuff, and very dramatic.