It took me some time to get around to watching this widely-hailed documentary, because I thought the scenes showing dolphin slaughter would be awful – and they were. Despite, or because of, this shocking footage, this is a work which deserves the plaudits which were heaped on it. The story begins with Ric O’Barry, a fascinating character whose relationship with dolphins began in the 1960s when he was the trainer for the dolphins who performed in Flipper. His moment of revelation came soon after the filming finished, when the dolphins were returned to aquariums where, like any creature in captivity, they were deeply unhappy – to the point that one committed suicide by choosing to stop breathing in his arms. The day afterwards, he was arrested for trying to free a dolphin.
But apart from the biography of a man who feels responsible for the dolphin mania which has resulted in the widespread capturing and use of dolphins for human amusement, and the concomitant deaths of captive or unwanted dolphins, this is a taut documentary in which the tension continually ratchets up, as the participants head to the Japanese town of Taiji and the secret cove of the title, a highly-secured zone forbidden to all but the local fishermen, where the slaughter of dolphins captured by batteries of sound (in another memorable moment, O’Barry says that he hears the banging of the metal poles in his dreams) is carried out. Using hi-tech equipment (from military-grade thermal goggles to cameras disguised as rocks) and low cunning, in constant danger from the local fishermen and the Japanese authorities, the team finally manage to film the slaughter in order to bring it to the attention of the world.
The slaughter of dolphins per se is not the only issue which this film explores – paths which lead away from this locus include fisheries and overfishing, mercury poisoning as a result of water pollution and public policy, dolphin awareness and questions of animal consciousness, whaling as an activity, and Japanese history and the relationship to the West, questions of tradition and ethics, and the cynical plutocracy of international influence. In opening out into such a broad spectrum, the film reminded me of another excellent documentary dealing with marine life – Sharkwater. Some accusations of racism or cultural prejudice toward the Japanese have been made toward the film, and there is perhaps an implication of enlightened Westerners journeying into the dangerous Orient in order to mitigate their barbaric practices, but on the balance I would say this charge is unwarranted – as the work itself demonstrates, most Japanese people are unaware of the slaughter and the dietary danger that it poses to them themselves.
Having said that, I was disappointed that in all of these complexities the question – which is raised by a Japanese advocate of dolphin slaughter – of why these Westerners find it acceptable to kill cows, but not dolphins, is not addressed. It may be the emotional attachment that Westerners have to dolphins as smart and cute animals (premised on Flipper and its inheritance) which make us want to keep dolphins in captivity, but it is these same traits which allow outrage over dolphin slaughter in non-Western countries while our own practices remain unexamined (I’m sure that footage of an industrial slaughterhouse would be equally disturbing and difficult to capture – though it is out there to some extent in works such as Meet Your Meat). I would suggest that, in order to get to the bottom of the relationship between humans and dolphins, so dysfunctional not only for dolphins but also for humans, a broader critique is needed of human relationships with non-human animals and ‘the animal’ more generally.
Nonetheless, this is a well-made, shocking and compelling documentary, one which is only now being screened in Japan itself, and one which makes up part of an increasing movement drawing attention to animal issues (we might also think, for example, of Jonathan Safran Foer’s widely-read Eating Animals) both from ethical and (somewhat more closely related to human self-interest and thus more likely to spur action) from environmental perspectives.