'The Cove' uses film as weapon for change

Oscar winner has rocked Japan's dolphin-hunting biz

If any dolphins were monitoring the Oscars, they had every reason to applaud when "The Cove" copped the prize for best documentary.

Accepting the award, producer Fisher Stevens made a point of thanking Ric O'Barry, the animal-rights activist upon whose efforts the film was based -- "who was not only a hero to this species, but to all species" -- and the film's director, Louie Psihoyos.

"I just want to say that it was an honor to work on this film and to try to make an entertaining film that also tries to enlighten everybody," Stevens said.

Released by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate on July 31, the film grossed only $853,787 at the domestic boxoffice, but even before its Oscar victory, all the awards attention it has garnered combined to cast a spotlight on its campaign to prevent the abuse of dolphins.

More than just simple piece of agitprop, "Cove" tells the story of O'Barry, a dolphin trainer on the 1960s TV series "Flipper" who became a crusader, working to free dolphins from captivity. It shines a light on subjects as diverse as the performing dolphin industry and the dangers of mercury poisoning.

And it turns into a real-life "Mission: Impossible" when Psihoyos, one of the founders of the Oceanic Preservation Society, recruits a team to secretly film the cove in Taiji, Japan, where thousands of dolphins are slaughtered annually.

"Once people see the film, they suddenly understand what everyone else was talking about: It's a film that empowers and inspires everyone that sees it," Psihoyos said prior to the Sunday's ceremony. "The Oscar (notoriety) has propelled us into a stratosphere I never dreamed of in terms of awareness."

Partnering with Participant Media's social action site Takepart.com, the filmmakers have sought to channel that interest through their Web site, takepart.com/thecove.

"The Web site is being flooded with people getting involved ," Psihoyos said. "Sometimes we get 80,000 hits a day, and we have nearly a million people signed up to help."

The issues the film raises were further forced into the headlines when a whale attacked and killed a trainer at Sea World in Orlando last month. O'Barry is lending his voice to those arguing that whales and dolphins don't belong in confinement.

Next month, "Cove" is scheduled to open theatrically in Japan, where the filmmakers will make some adjustments, like blurring the faces of some of the dolphin hunters." "There is concern," the director said, "that many of them might commit suicide when the world finds out what they have been doing in this Japanese national park."

The film already, has had an impact, though: The Japanese press has picked up on the issue. The distribution of some dolphin meat to Japanese schoolchildren has been stopped, and Psihoyos said he's received preliminary reports that the dolphin hunters have been kicked out of the secret cove and have retreated to an artificial cove, created a half-mile out to sea, where it's more difficult to round up the mammals.

Psihoyos' hope is that momentum is building to end both the captive dolphin industry and the slaughter of dolphins.

"I would like to see both industries go the way of slavery and Nazis, and with 'The Cove' I think it is possible," he said. "Film is the most powerful weapon in the world. I like to think of it as a weapon of mass construction."
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