The Cove

The Cove (film)

Several months ago I wrote Don Webb about a documentary I had just seen at the Melbourne Internationa Film Festival: the eco-thriller The Cove. We talked about Arkte, Runa, the scientist John C. Lilly, the media’s power to construct and shape social realities, and exchanged anecdotes about dolphins and other cetaceans.

Tonight, The Cove won the Best Documentary Oscar at the 82nd Academy Awards, beating out Food, Inc and Burma VJ, which are also worth seeing. National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos and dolphin activist Ric O’Barry attended the Academy Awards ceremony (Psihoyos’ acceptance speech was cut short). To learn more, visit the sites for the Oceanic Preservation Society (Psihoyos), and the Earth Island Institute and Save Dolphins Japan (O’Barry).

Information revelation or disclosure is one key to The Cove‘s narrative structure, and to the other alethic documentaries that were Oscar nominees in 2010. Within minutes of the opening credits, we learn of the film’s central secret: Japanese fishing groups are covertly slaughtering dolphins in the small town of Taiji. The local police chief and fishing industry do not want this secret revealed, because it would shame Taiji, which also relies on tourism with eikasia-like emotional themes of dolphin cuteness.

For me, this is operant Runa (mystery) used as deception or misdirection of attention, in order to sustain a multi-million dollar industry: dolphin drive hunting. As with Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel‘s work on corruption (such as disclosed through statistical and pattern analysis of diplomats’ parking tickets here), Taiji’s secret is first reveled through oblique means to Westerners who may be unfamiliar with Japanese cultural norms: the local marine park sells dolphin meat.

Ric O’Barry gives the film an emotional resonance. O’Barry was the original dolphin trainer for the 1964 television series Flipper. In several interviews he expresses ‘remorse of conscience’ that he spent his money on sports cars rather than saving the dolphins filmed in the series. Instead, Flipper galvanized a multi-million dollar marine park industry, which O’Barry believes keeps its animals in artificial, stressful conditions. This is one factor being considered for the captiva orca Tilikum, who is (anthropomorphically) blamed for the deaths of three people at SeaWorld Orlando.

Psihoyos and O’Barry spend most of The Cove trying to film the covert hunting. The fishermen and local authorities resist theirĀ  attempts, responding at first with confrontation, and then via surveillance of O’Barry who adopts a disguise. Surfer activists and marine biologists are attacked, blockaded or intimidated. So, Psihoyos brings in a Kerner FX team of special effects experts who have high-definition video cameras and underwater microphones. During a Japanese temple visit, the team realizes a solution: ‘What if the rocks could speak back to the people meditating on them?’ In a Mission: Impossible-like sequence the team plants the cameras. The multi-cam footage reveals in a two-minute sequence exactly what Taiji fishermen were trying to hide. At one point, even O’Barry is emotionally shocked to hear the recordings of dolphins . . . who are now (already) dead.

Although we know what the secret is, we don’t Know until Psihoyos and O’Barry force us to directly confront it.

Admittedly, this is a strongly one-sided film that at times approaches Ellulian agitative propaganda. Psihoyos and O’Barry want to wake you up, want to shock you emotionally, and they succeed in doing so. Only briefly, do they allude to other cross-cultural perspectives, such as Taiji fishermen reminiscing one evening about the dolphins and whales they used to see, and which have long disappeared from the oceans. The scenes about the International Whaling Commission‘s inability (like many trans-national organizations in an ‘anarchical’ global environment) to intervene in sovereign issues, and to prevent vote-buying are worthy of a follow-up investigation.

Yet The Cove transcends these limitations for several reasons:

Its deconstruction of dolphin cultural imagery may resonate with Arkte’s philosophy of animal rights and ecosystem-awareness. I will leave others who are more informed on Arkte to explore this angle.

The narrative highlights an inter-relationship between Aletheia and Runa: Aletheia as the approach and cultivated ability to skilfully discern, sincerely pursue, and to recognize Truth; as a form of self-initiatory Quest analogous to the Runa injunctive to ‘Seek the Mysteries’; and to do so even if under conditions of ambiguity, change, randomness and hazard, that may threaten to overwhelm the psychecentric consciousness. This is a necessary, observable and testable criterion to Recognize individuals in the Fichtean sense; for communal verification of Wisdom; and to evaluate and validate the initiatory process. It is one core competence of a School which distinguishes it functionally from other organizational forms.

The Cove offers a template of how to strategically navigate the issue-attention cycle and to bring change to the world. I made the following points in a workshop co-facilitated with activist, educator and action researcher Jose M. Ramos soon after the film’s release. Psihoyos got a major investor: entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jim Clark. O’Barry undergoes a conscientisation process similar to nigredo in Jungian alchemy. In game theoretic terms the Taiji cove is a Schelling focal point that gives O’Barry a (potentially) achievable goal and focus for resources. Psihoyos and Clark re-edited their footage to appeal to a broader audience on a topic that few may go and otherwise see. They used social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and’s video-on-demand to build a weak-tie coalition of supporters, and to overcome distribution bottlenecks. The team’s process of problem diagnosis highlights lessons in creativity and innovation that have a wider application to business and project management. Unlike many other activist campaigns their ingenuity overcomes the barriers and they get the high-definition footage. Psihoyos uses a sub-narrative on the health effects of high mercury levels in dolphin meat, and the impact on Taiji’s tourism, to do a Lakoff-style reframe of the salient issues. In the closing minutes, Psihoyos and his colleagues show the footage to interviewees, and you see a gestalt-switch occur in their eyes.

‘Next stop, ending the slaughter,’ Psihoyos tweeted after The Cove‘s Oscar win and dolphin suits on the red carpet, which clears the way for a theatrical release in Japan. But will the Oscar win translate into new cultural norms and social change in Japan, and elsewhere? Or will we have to live with virtual iPhoneDolphins or NintenDolphins instead?