Another year, another Sydney Film Festival

17 Jun 2009

Another year, another Sydney Film Festival.

Two films I saw really stood out – The Cove (about the continued Japanese dolphin slaughter) and Che Part I and Part II (covering the Cuban and Bolivian years of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara). Also memorable was Big River Man, about a middle aged  Slovenian man who swims the entire length of the Amazon river.

Like always (this is my approx 15th festival), I start the festival with feelings of both anticipation and trepidation – anticipation that I’ll see some great films, and trepidation at the long nights and weekends in the dark, followed by getting up in the morning for work :-) But there’s nothing like seeing a great movie with several thousand other cineastes in the splendour of the State Theatre to renew my love of good cinema.

The Cove works at multiple levels. Firstly we’re made to enjoy the almost James Bond nature of the film makers’ mission, as the team try to infiltrate the area where the slaughter takes place in Taiji, Japan – think spies and decoys, cameras disguised as rocks, and run-ins with guards. Then we’re made to feel revulsion at the killing of these animals that are so like us – they love their freedom, get happy, sad, even commit suicide, and most of all are sentient (as in “having self awareness”). The scenes of the actual slaughter are gut-wrenching – thousands of dolphins are herded into a 100m wide cove and killed by hand with harpoons. Dolphins in their death throws spin around in circles screaming, thrashing their tails, and even jumping onto land. The blood filled seawater turns opaque and divers feel their way along the seabed by hand, searching for carcasses.

But then the film starts to ask some deeper questions. First of all, dolphin meat contains high levels of mercury due to pollution and is basically poisonousness and unsaleable. Eating meat with these levels of mercury leads to large numbers of horrendous birth defects – which the Japanese unfortunately became aware of in the 70’s – a whole generation of birth defects forcing the closure of  many polluting industries in Japan. So why keep up with the “harvest”, even if the meat has to be foisted onto the Japanese public via illegal meat substitution and Yakuza links? The answers seem to involve dirty international politics and ugly right wing Japanese nationalism.

Secondly, inorganic pollutants are concentrated as we move up the predator-prey cycle, and dolphins (like wolves, lions, humans) are at the top of the food chain. Dolphin meat contains so much mercury that it’s inedible – what about us? How is that we can poison our environment so much that we’re poisoning ourselves?

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