Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Film Review: All About Whales: Whale Rider (2002) and The Cove (2009)

You may have noticed that the film, The Cove, won best Documentary film at the Oscars this year. It is the tale of Ric O'Barry, a man who is singularly responsible for the creation of dolphin captivity programs (think, Sea World and the like). Not long after working on the television show "Flipper" he realized that dolphin captivity was immoral. He has ever since, for about 40 years, been the leading activist against dolphin captivity programs.

Yet what The Cove tells us about dolphins goes way beyond the cruelties of Sea World. Most dolphins are captured for Sea World, swim-with-the-dolphins programs, etc., in a cove in Taiji, Japan. But very few of these dolphins captured end up in captivity; most are lured into another cove, the secret cove, where they are slaughtered. And these slaughtered dolphins end up packaged as food, sold mostly in Japanese grocery stores, although much of this dolphin meat is mislabeled as some other type of "meat."

Where The Cove is successful is in telling the tragic story of Ric O'Barry. We feel, deeply, his shame, and his sense of responsibility, the sense that he made this whole dolphin-capture mess, and now he must fix it. This is a well-told, tragic human story. As for the dolphins, how can we not feel sympathy for them? As you'll see in the movie, they scream for help like us, they bleed red like us. Seeing dolphins slaughtered in the cove, how can we not feel a collective shame for this? So, let us stop going to Sea World, just like we boycott zoos. The world will keep moving forward without dolphin capture and dolphin slaughter...right?

Paikea, the Whale Rider

The Māori of New Zealand have a legend about Paikea, the Whale Rider. Paikea migrated to New Zealand from Hawaiki upon the back of a whale (Hawaiki is not the same as today's Hawaiʻi, although the word is related; for the Māori it is a remembered ancestral place, much like how early Hawaiian legends refer to Tahiti). This legend helps make sense of Polynesian migration to New Zealand, which was an incredible historical moment when after thousands of years of eastward and northward migrations across the Pacific (Polynesian voyagers were the first humans to colonize the islands going east from Tonga to Samoa to Tahiti, the Marquesas, as far east as Rapa Nui [Easter Island]; Marquesan and Tahitian voyagers also colonized Hawaiʻi far to the north at two different times; AND strong evidence confirms that Polynesians had even visited South America before the second millenium) a late-stage, southwestern Polynesian voyage, into the unknown southern reaches of the South Pacific, brought Polynesians to New Zealand. And here, in New Zealand, they found the largest territory yet for Polynesian peoples to live. 

But most Māori today probably agree that their ancestors rode to New Zealand not on the back of a whale, but on a waka (in Hawaiian, waʻa), or canoe, one of which is prominently featured in the remarkable film, Whale Rider. In fact, a resurrection of "voyaging" upon waka/waʻa has been a major component of Polynesian ethnic revival across the Pacific during the past forty years, spearheaded by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Thus the final scene in Whale Rider, where they finally finish building a long-unfinished waka and set off into the ocean in it, signals that Māori ethnic identity will prevail, although for much of the movie that cultural heritage seems in dire peril.

Whale Rider is a fabulous movie. It is based on the book by acclaimed Māori author Witi Ihimaera and the film stars the incredible young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea, a young girl named after her ancestor Paikea, the Whale Rider. Young Paikea knows that she is destined to be the next leader of her Māori community, but her grandfather, the current leader and a strong traditionalist, believes that only a young man can be the Whale Rider; a woman has never, and could never, be the Whale Rider. Of course, Paikea proves him wrong. Good for her!

All About Whales

So how do these two films relate?

The core argument of The Cove is that dolphins are whales! Both are cetaceans. The movie is actually good at making us see that larger picture (dolphins-as-whales) by focusing on the IWC (International Whaling Commission) and the efforts of the Japanese delegation to the IWC to maintain a distinction between larger cetaceans ("whales") and smaller ones ("dolphins"). The Cove asks us to consider, really, what is the difference? Why should some cetaceans be protected and other not? 

The answer is that the Japanese do not want to give up on whaling, and while they would prefer to hunt all cetaceans, they do not want to give up the very profitable dolphin industry. The people of Taiji see these little whales as part of their cultural heritage, identity, and community. The people of Taiji, Japan, in a sense, have a cultural stake (And economic stake, too!) in preserving traditional human-whale relationships, which for them means some amounts of capturing, slaughtering, and autonomous control over dolphin conservation.

The Māori of Whangara, New Zealand, also have a cultural stake in whales. When about a dozen whales beach near Paikea's home near the end of the film, we see the community rush out to help them, exerting almost all their energy in an attempt to save these few whales. We can contrast this response with the energy expended by the fishermen of Taiji in trying to keep foreign journalists and activists away from their secret cove. Both incidents entail emergencies where cultural connections to whales are endangered. These incidents are at once so similar and yet so different.

In the end, The Cove is not a great movie, because it totally fails to give us a Japanese perspective on the dolphin slaughter. In fact, what the movie shows us is what we have already known for too long about environmentalism: environmentalism, as exemplified by this case, is a movement by well-to-do, urban, first-world, white people; and it is, as in this case, sometimes a very ethnocentric movement. In failing to really see (and show us) how the people of Japan think about whales and whaling, these activists also fail to see that their own vision of what the proper human-whale relationship should look like just doesn't make sense to other people in other circumstances.

The environmental activists in The Cove, however, make a good point. As do the fishermen of Taiji, Japan. As do the Māori of New Zealand. In my opinion, we do need to think more about whales - all kinds of whales, dolphins included - and we need to make global compromises about how to regulate human-whale relations. I think of this like vegetarianism. I am a vegetarian. While I acknowledge that my own ancestors ate meat, and that many types of meat, in fact, are a major part of my cultural heritage and identity, I have found that culture cannot be static. It must always change. But as my own family's culture moves from meat-eating to vegetarianism, we do not break a link with the past. Rather we build upon our past. We are making an ethical improvement upon our heritage. This is a choice, however, that it is only right for me to make for myself.

Young Paikea in the Whale Rider teaches us that traditions can and should change so that our heritage can be dynamic and vibrant and inclusive. And as for Taiji's dolphin-slaughtering cove, it is apparent that activists from the outside can hoot and holler as much as they want, but for meaningful change to occur in Japan, Japanese people will have to reinvent their own heritage, too, from the inside. As the Māori have. And as I have. The Cove will release in Japan this let's see what happens!


  1. Although I haven't seen it yet, we brought The Cove to Madison last semester for a big environmental film festival CHE (the environmental history center on campus) has put on for a couple of years, called Tales from Planet Earth ( My advisor had made some comments about how he really disliked the film because it was "racist"--your comments give me a better understanding of what he might have meant by that. So thank you for them! I don't know if you've read his Reel Nature (which, as I joked about at the grad student reception, he always has to spell when talking about out loud R-E-E-L, so that people get the joke), but it does a wonderful job of analyzing environmental and racial messages in "nature" films throughout the twentieth century.

  2. Hey Anna,

    That's interesting. I picked up a copy of "R-E-E-L Nature" at the Graduate Student Reception raffle at ASEH in Portland! So it is on my bookshelf, but it will have to wait until this summer.

    His comments that The Cove is "racist" are understandable. That this movie won Best Documentary at the Oscars should be a wake-up call to us environmental historians that our critical analyses of human-nature relationships are NOT influencing mainstream American audiences, at least not the environmentalists featured in this movie. That should give us serious pause about the societal value of our work, no?

  3. I don't need any more reasons to have serious pause about the societal value of our work! If anything, I need some "fast-forward" or even just some "play." (some reasons to think there *is* value!)