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Originally published Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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'The Cove' seeks change with graphic view of dolphin slaughter

Director Louie Psihoyos talks about his film "The Cove," which won the Golden Space Needle award for best documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival. The film is about a cove on the Japanese coast where for generations residents have survived by killing and processing dolphins. It opens Aug. 7 for a regular run.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Rarely does an investigative documentary have such immediate impact that it results in observable change.

Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" (1988) was one such film. By proving the innocence of a death-row inmate, it led directly to his exoneration.

Louie Psihoyos claims that his nonfiction thriller, "The Cove," is responsible for mercury-tainted dolphin flesh being pulled from Japanese school lunches.

"You can draw a straight line from this movie being made to no schoolchildren now being served toxic dolphin," he said when he brought the movie to the Seattle International Film Festival. It won the Golden Space Needle for best documentary and returns Friday for a regular run.

Of course, Psihoyos would like to do more. Like outlawing the slaughter of dolphins that are routinely lured into a picturesque cove on the Japanese coast. For generations, its residents have survived by killing and processing dolphins, and they're fiercely protective of their right to do so.

"We did our part," said Psihoyos. "That's the power of film. It can really change people."

Stopping off on his way back from the Cannes Film Festival, where "directors are celebrated like rock stars," he said he'd sold the film to more than a dozen countries. He sees its success as part of a larger environmental story.

"It's not just about the cove, it's about what we're doing to the bigger oceans," he said. Several years ago, Psihoyos and his diving buddy, Jim Clark, founded the Oceanic Preservation Society, partly because they were alarmed at the levels of pollution.

"We've been watching as we go back to the same diving places, and we see less and less fish, more bleaching, more problems with the oceans," he said. "We're fouling our own nests. We thought someone ought to do something about it. We decided to make a film about what was going on."

For years, he worked as a photographer for National Geographic magazine, specializing in "really unpopular stories, things that were really 'unphotographable,' and I tried to make them interesting."

He went through a similar process as a nonfiction movie director, searching for a narrative to emerge. Eventually he hired a writer, Mark Monroe, who helped bring out what Psihoyos regards as the "Ocean's Eleven" heist-movie elements.

"With a documentary, as a director, you're really just finding the story," he said. "How much can you direct? If you work in conjunction with a writer, you can do quite a bit. We had 600 or 700 hours of footage that had to be whittled down to 90 minutes, and we had a lot of stories going on."

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One dealt with overfishing, another with mercury poisoning, another with dolphin hunting, another with whaling. He sees his job as "putting these into a context without simplifying it too much. I think the media really try to dumb down stories, to make it too simple for people.

"But the American public can handle it. People want complexity, they want to see the gray areas, and that's what we try to do in this movie. You try to harness the best ideas and get everybody going in the same direction."

Psihoyos said he tried to be fair to the cove's residents and lawmakers and present their point of view.

"At a meeting at the mayor's office, they said, 'We treat the dolphins like our relatives,' " Psihoyos said. "I thought they were telling the truth.

"But after two days of negotiations, [the mayor] said we can't protect you if you try to get near the cove. I had no idea what kind of horrors were in that cove. Nobody had a clue. I'm still sort of in shock."

He ended up with hours of graphic footage of his crew defying the dolphin killers and filming the slaughter. Only about two minutes of it ended up in the film.

"Sitting through that footage," he said, "was the hardest month of my life. It reduced the audience to tears at Sundance."

Psihoyos has taken to heart the film's environmental message. He installed a solar system on his roof, he owns two electric cars, and he claims he hasn't paid for oil or gasoline for more than a year.

Scared off by his doctor, who told him he had unacceptably high levels of mercury in his system, Psihoyos is now much more careful about his diet.

"Right now I can safely say, there's very little I'm doing, while I'm at home anyway, to cause an influx of mercury."

As for the dolphin killers, he sees no immediate relief.

"I hope they have the weight of humanity descend on them, in a massive form," he said.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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