2009's Most Disturbing Film Is A Documentary

Ransom Riggs

You might have already heard about The Cove. Described by one critic as "Flipper meets the Bourne Identity," it's a compelling marriage of edge-of-your-seat infiltration/espionage and more traditional documentary storytelling, all in the service of exposing the bloody secret of one small town in Japan, where every year in a secluded cove tens of thousands of dolphins are rounded up in nets and harpooned to death, their meat repackaged as other kinds of seafood and sold in supermarkets across Japan. I saw the film a few weeks ago and it quite honestly gave me nightmares.

The film's effort to expose the killings is led by dolphin expert Ric O'Barry, who most famously trained the dolphins who collectively player "Flipper" on the 1960s TV show of the same name. He makes an impassioned argument against the capture, killing or confinement of dolphins, admitting that it was only after he himself helped to spawn the Sea World industry and hundreds of copycat parks like it across the world did he realize just how intelligent -- and not just intelligent, but self-aware -- dolphins are.

Then, last week, I saw a news article which seemed to back up O'Barry's assertions almost word-for-word:

Dolphins have been declared the world's second most intelligent creatures after humans, with scientists suggesting they are so bright that they should be treated as "non-human persons". The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future. Other research has shown dolphins can solve difficult problems, while those living in the wild co-operate in ways that imply complex social structures and a high level of emotional sophistication. The researchers argue that their work shows it is morally unacceptable to keep such intelligent animals in amusement parks or to kill them for food or by accident when fishing. Some 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die in this way each year.

The Cove is a strong contender for this year's documentary Oscar. It's pretty heavy-duty (I don't get nightmares easily), but I highly recommend it. Here's the trailer (which, while compelling, is considerably less likely to give you nightmares):