'Cove' awash in controversy

Japanese government pressure might have led to change in LAFF venue

A Sundance hit that had been a thorn in the side of the Japanese government during production is at the center of a flap now that it's rolling out.

"The Cove," Louis Psihoyos' look at the killing of dolphins by fishermen off the coast of the Japanese city of Wakayama, rankled Japanese leaders during production, with the government scrutinizing the project and even attempting to halt production, according to Psihoyos.

Now the film, which portrays the Japanese government as complicit in the fishermen's activities, has been diverted from one screening venue to another at the Los Angeles Film Festival because of potential Japanese government objections.

Psihoyos' film, which won the audience doc award at Sundance and which Roadside Attractions is releasing this year, was a prime candidate to play one of the fest's large, free outdoor screenings downtown at the Grand Performances at California Plaza venue.

But soon after the possibility emerged, the venue opted not to show the film. Some insiders have said the influence of the Japanese consulate-general, which rents space in the plaza, is responsible.

Instead, the movie will play indoors June 28 at a smaller venue, the Crest, on the last Sunday of the festival. The screening will continue to be free.

Roadside Attractions co-topper Howard Cohen said he didn't believe the turn of events would harm the pic's publicity efforts.

"Grand Performances did what it had to do," he said. "The important thing is that people will still get to see it. The larger issue is we are trying directly to engage the Japanese government," a campaign he said would continue as the film rolled out at other festivals and in the media.

Michael Alexander, executive director of Grand Performances, acknowledged that he foresaw possible problems on the part of the Japanese government but denied the consulate had ever specifically asked him to reject the film.

"This is all me, making certain worst-case assumptions about certain things," he said. "We are running a performing arts program here that is free to the public and heavily subsidized through an agreement with the city of Los Angeles and the owners of the Plaza here (who) also rent space to the Japanese consulate. And I did not want to do anything without being able to do lots of homework."

A rep for the festival said the film had been part of a list of candidates that had been submitted to Grand Performances but had never been confirmed for the venue. Programming director Rachel Rosen said only that "we believe in the film, and we've invited it to play in the film festival."

Participant Prods., which produced the pic and is putting up P&A funds, declined comment on the L.A.F.F. screening, and a producer on the film did not respond to a request seeking comment.

A spokesman for the Japanese Consulate-General said the group had "offered no opinion" on the screening.

Whatever the precise sequence, the flap highlights the issues a doc like "The Cove" faces. Because it deals with real-life problems, it is a film that is subject to real-life pressures.

While the disagreement between the government and filmmakers could continue to boil over, it might also, ironically, help the movie.

"It's always a little uncomfortable when you have to deal with something like this," one film-marketing exec said of the situation. "But this film is all about raising awareness about a government's activities, so a fresh controversy with a government is not the worst thing in the world. Besides, theatrical documentaries these days need all the help they can get."

Steven Zeitchik reported from New York; Jay A. Fernandez reported from Los Angeles.