'The Cove' screens in Tokyo

Controversial dolphin docu originally excluded from TIFF

TOKYO -- The Tokyo International Film Festival received drama and media attention on Wednesday, although probably not the kind it had hoped for, as controversial dolphin-hunting documentary "The Cove" grabbed the spotlight with its first public screening in Japan.

At a post-screening press conference, director Louie Psihoyos claimed the previous Japanese government -- which suffered a historic landslide defeat in the August 30 election -- had pressured the festival not to show the documentary. The charge was vehemently denied by festival organizers, with one official describing it as "total bulls---."

The film highlights both the dolphin slaughter in the small fishing port of Taiji, and the toxically high levels of mercury in their flesh.

"A festival director told me it would be hypocritical not to show the film given the environmental theme of the festival, but that the government was a major sponsor of the festival," Psihoyos told The Hollywood Reporter, "Then the government changed; the film didn't change."

"The Cove" was a late addition to the festival program, having been initially rejected. The press conference at which the screening was announced took place on September 16, the day the new administration of Yukio Hatoyama took office. The new prime minister attended Saturday's opening ceremony for the fest.

The fishermen featured in the film had asked TIFF organizers to cancel the screening, which was attended by the mayor of Taiji, a fisherman's union rep and a fisheries spokesperson from the former administration. With emotions running high on all sides, the assembled media pack moved to a nearby venue outside the festival to carry on a Q&A with Psihoyos.

Local media questioned the filmmaker's highlighting of the dolphin hunt while greater numbers of other animals are slaughtered around the globe.

Psihoyos responded by claiming the central message of the movie was the mercury levels of the dolphin meat, both as a health hazard to consumers, and as an indication of the poisoned state of the oceans.

Despite stating that the animal rights argument was "unwinnable, and leads only to stalemate," he made a number of passionate pleas to stop the killing of the "sentient and intelligent" dolphins, and of whales, which Japan continues to hunt.

He went on to praise the "courageous decision" of TIFF organizers to show film, saying he was told it would be impossible to get it screened in Japan.

"I wouldn't call it a bidding war but we're now in negotiations with a couple of Japanese distributors to get the film a proper release here," Psihoyos told The Hollywood Reporter.