Against All Odds Redux: The Cove in Japan

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The following post is a recount of the events surrounding the screening of The Cove at the Tokyo International Film Festival, as told by David Kubiak of David was instrumental, along with many others, in making the screening and press events happen in Japan.


With an arrest warrant looming and word on the street that city officials from Taiji would be in attendance, The Cove and director Louie Psihoyos made their debuts at the Tokyo International Film Festival yesterday and largely stole the show.

TIFF initially refused to include The Cove in its green "Action for the Earth!" themed 2009 festival because of its "sensitive" (i.e., blood-drenched, Japan-critical) nature, but persistent interventions by Cove supporter Ben Stiller, TIFF jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu, and other free speech advocates pressured organizers to relent and include it the line-up.

Acceptance did not mean endorsement, however, and TIFF continued to undercut the screening, especially after the town of Taiji threatened to sue the festival for showing the film and right wingers vowed to protest with their deafening PA trucks. The film was first assigned an inconspicuous 10:30 AM slot in a 165-seat venue on Wednesday, 10/21, which almost instantly sold out online, and when pressed to assign an additional venue, TIFF officials scheduled a 9:00 PM "press only" showing on Sunday 10/18 but forgot to notify the press corps that the showing had been arranged.

When Louie arrived at festival the morning of the 21st, he and CNN and everyone else discovered that TIFF had also suddenly changed the photo rules and now, citing the "privacy rights" of the building owner, no one was allowed to shoot Louie on the "green carpet" entryway (where the glitzy star walk pics are always shot) or under the huge TIFF entry sign. Louie and party where then hustled to a sealed off upstairs lounge until the post-showing Q&A for their protection and privacy.

So it wasn't the warmest reception, but on the other hand, the early threats regarding Louie's airport arrest, rightist disruptions, and last minute TIFF cancelations proved hollow bravado, so everyone was just relieved the event was going through at all.

Inside the "sold out" theater TIFF had miraculously discovered a row of empty seats that was now filled with Taiji officials, including Mayor Sangen, "Private Space" and several Fishery Agency suits. When the film ended and audience broke into applause, Mayor Sangen and his entourage trooped out scowling before Louie appeared and the Q&A began.

Louie spoke for a few minutes explaining his motivations and hopes for the film, and admitting to nervousness at standing for the first time before a quintessentially "non-chorus" crowd. He handled the expected "traditional food culture" questions deftly by noting his mother was older than this particular dolphin-killing "tradition" and also responded thoughtfully to queries over why the film seemed to veer from an animal rights appeal to a mercury focused public health alarm.

Louie recounted the internal evolution of a classic documentary that follows a developing story rather than imposing predetermined script lines of its own. He recalled his own wake up call at a sushi dinner with some Minamata doctors who refused to eat any of the larger, more expensive fish. When asked why, they said they had tried a piscine Supersize Me experiment on themselves to test mercury accumulation and found that eating 200 grams of small fish per day doubled their mercury levels in a month, but the same amount of larger fish increased their own mercury blood toxicity by eight times in the same span of time. This led Louie to test his own levels as well as those of his fisherman son, both of which were through the roof, awakening him quite personally to the mercury menace in our seas and widening his appreciation of the risks of our fossil-fueled (and mercury intensive) energy economy.

The entire session was quite gratifying with complimentary comments far out-numbering the softball critiques and ended with another round of appreciative applause, primarily for Louie but also for Ms. Tamako Takamatsu, the incredibly talented translator the Earth Island Institute advance team had hired (since TIFF refused to offer a customary Q&A interpreter of its own).

Louie and crew then trucked down to a press conference organized by the advance team in a trendy nearby club. The briefing was attended by about 45 Japanese and foreign media reps as well as 40 people from local activist groups and moderated by the London Time's distinguished Asian editor, Richard Lloyd Parry (who actually appears briefly in The Cove getting hit over the head with a sign by an irate Taiji fisherman).

The questioning was more intensive but followed a similar course as the movie Q&A, except for the great interest in Louie's surprising offer to show the film for free in Taiji and to donate all OPS Japanese profits from the film to Taiji fishermen if and when they renounce the drive kills and turn to other catch.

Though some of the Japanese press comments were fairly critical of the movie's alleged cultural chauvinism (e.g., condemning dolphin fishing but not wholesale factory farmed cow and pig slaughter), Louie said he did not condone such practices either, but they were outside the purview of his film; and he made an impassioned defense of his Ocean Preservation Society's focus on the critical state of the seas. Citing the catastrophic decline of ocean  life and health globally and need for activism on every front, he pointed to the dolphin tragedy as a symbolic and motivating issue rather than the be all end all of the film. Properly understood, he said, The Cove is actually "a love letter to the Japanese people" -- a sincere effort to seduce them into a greater planetary love affair that would radically improve our world and protect their children, too.

The 90-minute briefing ended convivially with appreciative statements from most participants, except perhaps from Mr. Masayuki Komatsu, the notorious Fishing Agency spokesman who monitored the meeting (and had once famously declared that minke whales were "the cockroaches of the sea"). He simply stared at the floor, rubbed his temples and frowned a lot, and left without comment at the end.

Louie followed this run with several more exhausting hours of one-on-one interviews with major domestic and international media outlets, but the long effort paid off rather handsomely with hundreds of stories running on Google News the following day, not to mention the scores of stories and TV clips running in the Japanese media that completely overshadowed all other TIFF news for the week.

Indeed from the Associated Press's first story on the 2009 TIFF opening that was half about The Cove to the torrent of Cove coverage that continued through the week, it is obvious the TIFF executives knew exactly what they were doing when they tried to preemptively ban the film. They understand color and know a bloody rain of dolphin tears can always grey out and overshadow a faux green parade.

Louie flew out the next morn for the German and UK openings, and another few weeks of dawn to dusk PR. But before leaving he expressed his deepest gratitude (with fine scotch and feasting) to the EII advance team, which had organized all his events and leveraged The Cove's 9/25 Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club showing into a potent media network that made TIFF's attempted news blackout a bit of a farce.

International Sales Agent Carl Clifton of the Works Media Group stayed behind in Tokyo to try and leverage the sudden notoriety into theater distribution on the ground. Those talks are still in progress. Will report how they turn ou

Blog slogging from Nihon,

David Kubiak,, Tokyo, Japan