IF YOU GO
When: 7:20 p.m. Thursday
Where: Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd.
Admission: $150 for the full gala, $29 for the movie screening
Information: www.naplesfilmfest.com, 597-1900
Also: A question-and-answer session with director Louis Psihoyos will follow the screening.
Louis Psihoyos is flying about as high as any documentary director can be.
His first film, the thrilling eco-documentary "The Cove," has won awards at just about every film festival that matters. Sundance. Sydney. Seattle. Silver Docs. And those are just the festivals that start with the letter "S." Most people think the movie is a lock for an Oscar nomination.
Psihoyos (which rhymes with sequoias) recently returned from the Tokyo Film Festival, where he didn’t win any awards, wasn’t allowed to speak and was shuttled in and out through a back entrance. Yet, it was this screening that represented the culmination of his work.
"It was pretty much the screening of my dreams," he says.
He’ll be in Naples to screen the film again to open the Naples International Film Festival on Thursday.
For Psihoyos, 52, a longtime National Geographic photographer, showing his film in Japan represents both the metaphorical and kind of literal scene of the crime.
In the opening narration of "The Cove," Psihoyos makes a statement that both sets the tone for the film and sets it apart from other documentaries.
He and his crew, he assures us, tried to shoot this film without breaking any laws. They wanted to go in and tell the story just like they would make any other movie. Really, they did.
"We never set out to do anything but tell this story to people," Psihoyos says years after that scene was shot. "But we didn’t have other options. They didn’t want us to let people know what is really happening."
What’s happening is, according to the movie, a systematic slaughter of thousands of dolphins each year in Taiji, a Japanese fishing town. It’s an act that Japanese whaling officials and the local fishermen didn’t want to come to light. And throughout Psihoyos’ attempts to legitimately film the collection of these dolphins, they stood in his way.
So the intrepid Psihoyos did what Danny Ocean would do. He put together a crack team of deep divers, Hollywood camera wizards and daredevils to infiltrate the titular cove where the dolphin massacres took place. He broke laws, lots of laws. He trespassed. He surreptitiously planted cameras and microphones. He filmed undercover police. And he did all of these things after repeated warnings against doing them.
It’s the mission-impossible nature of the film that has drawn the most attention. And it wasn’t until Psihoyos started editing the film that this story line took hold. Until then, it was just a documentary about the killing of dolphins. But in the editing bay it became increasingly obvious that the most compelling footage was both of his rag-tag team’s efforts to get into the cove in Tajii and of the things they filmed without anyone’s knowledge.
"We didn’t script it like that," he says. "It just became clear this is where the movie was."
The killing scenes are edited in Hitchcockian jump-cut fashion for maximum drama. But more chilling might be the casual discussion of killing whales from the fishermen as they stand around a fire in the cove waiting for the kill.
"That scene is when I knew we had it," Psihoyos says. When crew watched the raw footage in their hotel room after retrieving the cameras, no one could speak Japanese. They had no idea what the men where saying. "It didn’t matter. It was the way they looked when they were talking that made the hair on your neck stand up. When we finally got the translation we were just floored."
Yet, as dramatic as the killing scenes in "The Cove" are, Psihoyos says he believes people will only stop killing dolphins in Japan as people realize how toxic their meat is.
"It won’t be an animal rights surge that stops this," he says. "It will be the levels of mercury in the meat and its effects on humans that will cause enough outrage to make a change."
Showing up in at the festival in Tokyo put Psihoyos in jeopardy. He was technically a wanted man.
"I was prepared to be arrested and put in jail," he says. "I was terrified of it, but I was prepared."
Luckily for him, nothing happened. In a culture based around avoiding embarrassment, Psihoyos probably had the odds in his favor. The screening went off without a hitch, except for the festival organizers not letting him walk down the red carpet, or green carpet, since the theme of the festival was the environment. The organizers didn’t give an official reason for hiding him away, but Psihoyos said it was about saving face with the government.
Perhaps more satisfying than retaining his freedom was getting to see the characters whom his film maligns having to face the music.
"The mayor of Taiji ran out of the room," he says. "(The Japanese whaling commission minister) was rubbing his head the whole time like he had a bad headache."
And, as was his hope, the audience members were aghast at what they saw on the screen.
The crowd reaction was almost exactly the same as Psihoyos’ when he first learned of Tajii at a chance meeting with Rick O’Barry. Among those in the oceanic research community, O’Barry is something of an outcast. A longtime advocate of discontinuing the use of dolphins in theme parks and attractions, O’Barry has run up against Sea World, which funds large swaths of research into whales and dolphins.
The fact that Sea World’s research arm and O’Barry are at odds is ironic. Without O’Barry, the theme park might not be culturally ubiquitous. As a dolphin trainer, O’Barry captured and trained the dolphins that would become "Flipper." His work on the show contributed to an increased fascination with porpoises.
Although O’Barry says he realized early on that his charges were nearly his equals in the intelligence department, it took one of his dolphins dying in his arms to make him realize that keeping them in captivity was a bad idea.
In the movie, he describes a dolphin "committing suicide" in his arms. He says the dolphin held its breath until it died. Since then, he’s made it his mission to convince people of the cruelty of keeping and killing dolphins.
"The Cove" is going a long way to make that a reality. It’s been screened to rave reviews at festivals around the world, giving O’Barry a global audience. He and Psihoyos hope that a massive outcry from the people can do what governing bodies won’t.
"In ancient Greece it was a crime punishable by death to kill a dolphin," he says. "They are the only wild animals known to save human lives. People need to know what is happening."
Connect with Jonathan Foerster at www.naplesnews.com/staff/jonathan_foerster