There are usually two reasons why Americans choose not to watch documentaries. The first is that they think they will be boring. The second is that they think documentaries will force them to reconsider their actions.
In some cases it is undoubtedly true that "ignorance is bliss." We all must pick our battles in life if only to maintain our sanity. In other cases though, there are simple, easy things we can do that will profoundly better our world-- and this is why you should watch The Cove, an exciting, emotional documentary that suggests that we really have to do very little to keep over 20,000 dolphins from being pointlessly slaughtered each year in Japan.
I confess that it took me and my wife almost a week to watch The Cove after we received it from Netflix. I had heard that it was an outstanding documentary. But I thought the subject would be depressing. Day after day when we sat down for some evening television and web-browsing, the documentary kept losing out to NBA playoff games and TV movie tripe like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Finally, my wife put down her foot and said that we were wasting our money. We had to watch the movie.
Before I say more about the film, a slight aside: two years ago Slate magazine's John Swansburg conducted an informal poll about "The Netflix rentals Slate readers just can't bring themselves to watch." Out of 1000 responses, Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List came out on top.
As Swansburg noted, "Hotel Rwanda is that rare movie about a devastating subject that nevertheless feels like something you really do need to see. The same goes for Schindler's List, which finished a close second among Slate readers. Both appeal to the lofty sense of ourselves that comes to the fore when we're managing our queues. Neither feels especially appealing after a long day at the office."
If Slate were conduct this poll again in about 6 months, I bet that The Cove would pop up to nearly the top of the list. But after watching it, I was impressed that despite its most graphic, soul-crushing scenes, even among documentaries this one was extremely entertaining, educational, and inspiring.
For the uninitiated, The Cove might as well be described as a thriller. Here's the setup: in the coastal Japanese village of Taiji, each year community fishermen work collectively to drive thousands of bottle-nosed dolphins into shore, so that they first can sell a few select dolphins to aquariums, hotels, and anywhere else that wants to host captive dolphin shows. Next, the dolphins that are not selected are moved somewhere else, never to be seen again. This place is in fact "the Cove," a hidden, high security facility that exists within a Japanese National Park.
Roger Ebert eloquently describes the rest in his review:
"The Cove," a heartbreaking documentary, describes how Richard O'Barry, director Louie Psihoyos and a team of adventurers penetrated the tight security around the Taiji cove and obtained forbidden footage of the mass slaughter of dolphins. Divers were used to sneak cameras into the secret area; the cameras, designed by Industrial Light and Magic, were hidden inside fake rocks that blended with the landscape.
The logistics of their operation, captured by night-vision cameras at times, has the danger and ingenuity of a caper film. The stakes are high: perhaps a year in prison. The footage will temper the enjoyment of your next visit to see performing dolphins.
Ebert is right, and I will even go further and say that the last thing he mentions is what is most important.
In the film we are introduced to Ric O'Barry. In the 1960s O'Barry worked for the Miami Seaquarium as a dolphin trainer. His talent was recognized, and so he was asked to capture and train the five dolphins that would be featured on the popular television show Flipper. O'Barry suggests that the show's popularity led to the huge surge of interest in live dolphin shows around the world. In other words, he was an essential contributor to the growth of the industry-- and as a result, the mass slaughter of dolphins that would eventually take place in Japan.
In a rare case of a 180 degree life-turns, O'Barry left behind a life of wealth and fame to help destroy the industry he helped create. In many ways The Cove is his story. It is reflective of our own tendencies to love animals to death-- even when we might be ignorant of how our actions hurt animals more than than help them.
The answer to preventing the slaughter of dolphins that occurs in Japan is pretty simple: make people aware of what's happening and destroy the demand. How big of a sacrifice is it to choose not to go see a dolphin show? Not a very big one in my estimation, especially if you know you that it might help to prevent the needless slaughter of over 20,000 dolphins a year. I've written before about the costs of animal captivity in comparison to the benefits of having animals available for educational purposes, and The Cove makes it clear that in the case of whales and dolphins, captivity is immoral.
But beyond this message, there are other interesting things I learned by watching The Cove. For instance, I never knew that dolphins are actually whales. The reason that we do not think of them as whales is in part because the corrupt International Whaling Commission does not recognize them as species meriting protection. We also learn about how Japan has assembled a voting bloc within the International Whaling Commission that agrees with its perspective without hesitation. They accomplished this feat by bribing small developing nations in the Caribbean with investment dollars.
While many have voiced concerns that the documentary unfairly critiques Japanese culture, the film itself notes that most Japanese people do not even know about the slaughter occurring in "the Cove." They have been kept in the dark. In fact, this past week several theaters in Japan refused to show the film because of protests from people who thought the film was insulting to Japan's culture (after seeing the documentary, you might be inclined to think the people behind these protests are actually paid censors).
To partially defend Japan, other countries like the United States have similarly inconsistent practices that could be labeled as evil, bad, or corrupt. For instance, when I thought about the mistreatment of dolphins in The Cove, as an American I instantly began to ponder how our factory farms were any better. Animals like cows and chickens are treated just as poorly. We just do not think of their tortured deaths as tragic because they are domesticated animals that Americans eat regularly (rather than wild ones), that also do not have toxic levels of mercury in their bodies (as dolphins do). While I have not seen it yet, my guess is that the new documentary Food, Inc., is something of American companion version of The Cove. My guess is that it's actually a lot harder to stomach than The Cove, because it probably demands its viewers to change their food buying habits substantially-- and this gets us back to my premise.
So why should you watch The Cove? Because it's a damn entertaining film, you will learn some things, and you will only need to do one very important thing: choose not to go see whale and dolphin shows. That's a pretty low price to pay to save over 20,000 dolphins a year.
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