For the past few weeks I’ve been having flashbacks of a video that a vegan acquaintance posted on Facebook. Shot on a hidden camera, it depicted hundreds of fluffy male chicks getting conveyed into an industrial grinder, their punishment for being deemed surplus to requirements. Omelets haven’t tasted the same since.
There are many cruelties involved in commercial food production, though only a few of them seem to garner widespread news coverage. When Louie Psihoyos’ 2009 documentary “The Cove” focused international ire on the annual dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, supporters of the practice were quick to argue, “Yeah, but look at all the unsavory stuff you guys do to put food on your tables.”
This is one of the principal arguments advanced in “Behind ‘The Cove,’ ” first-time director Keiko Yagi’s rebuttal. “The Cove” was shamelessly one-sided but brilliantly wrought, told with the propulsive energy of a heist movie. Yagi’s film, an opportunistic mulch of moral relativism, revisionism and obfuscation, can feel more like scrolling through a YouTube comment thread.
Although it’s being screened with English narration and bilingual subtitles, “Behind ‘The Cove’ ” is so rambling and parochial that it’s hard to imagine it winning over many viewers, foreign or otherwise. Watched as the cinematic equivalent of a DVD bonus feature, however, it’s not without interest.
Yagi returns to the scene of “The Cove” to find Taiji besieged by activists from the radical conservationist group Sea Shepherd, whom she’s surprised to find are more courteous in person than their reputation might suggest. She also speaks to some of the interviewees featured in the original film, including International Whaling Commission (IWC) representative Joji Morishita, who dismisses Psihoyos’ documentary as a “good brainwashing showcase.”
It’s too bad that the film’s attempts to debunk “The Cove” are so incomplete. Yagi barely touches on two of Psihoyos’ most damaging claims: that the high mercury concentrations in dolphin meat make it unsuitable for human consumption, and that the Taiji hunt is principally about capturing animals for sale to aquariums rather than preserving cultural traditions.
Instead, her counter-narrative devolves into a lengthy defense of Japan’s whaling tradition, and an account of how the country has been short-changed by the IWC in general and America in particular — never mind the dolphins.
One of the most illuminating interviews is with Simon Wearne, a Wakayama-based academic who worked as a cameraman on the first season of “Whale Wars,” an American documentary TV series about Sea Shepherd. He accuses the group of maintaining a constant “corner shop” presence in Taiji to assist its fundraising efforts, rather than for nobler concerns, and praises the sustainability of Japan’s whaling as it was traditionally practiced in the Edo Period (1603-1868).
There’s a clear disconnect between the historical ideal that Wearne describes and the industry that flourished in the aftermath of World War II, when Japan’s whaling fleets plied waters thousands of miles from home. Given its outsize role in the depletion of Pacific bluefin tuna stocks, Japan might not be in the best position to lecture other countries on sustainable fishing practices now.
When the film references the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — in a bid to underline Japan’s victimhood and America’s moral hypocrisy — it’s a leap too far.
There’s a good documentary waiting to be made about the knotty international debate over whaling, but “Behind ‘The Cove’ ” is no less partisan than the film it seeks to discredit. Yagi has retaliated against a perceived piece of propaganda by making one of her own.
At least “The Cove” was entertaining.