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Blood in paradise
A video interview with actor/producer/director Fisher Stevens, conducted at the 2010 Ischia Global Film & Music Festival by Timothy E. RAW, plus a personal recollection of the multi-award winning, Stevens produced documentary THE COVE by Slarek

Imagine the situation. You spend years becoming increasingly fascinated by a far-away a country, and when you finally get to go there it surpasses your expectations and you fall head over heels in love with it. In your exploration of its various regions, you discover a place that comes to hold a special significance, one that loses none of its magic on a second or third visit and that even the thought of returning to fills you with eager anticipation. Even better, it's one that almost no English or American visitors are aware of, allowing you to totally immerse yourself in the locale, its people and its culture. And then, one day, something comes along that changes forever how you regard the district and exposes its existence to the whole world, and for all the wrong reasons.

OK, let's quit the suppositions and ground this story in reality. The person is me, the country is Japan, and the place is Nachi-Katsuura in the Wakayama prefecture, specifically the Hotel Urashima, whose fabulous onsen baths are located in natural caves beneath the prominence on which the hotel was built. Three times I've been there now, and apart from the howling cold that accompanied my last visit, I've loved every minute. Well, almost.

On my second visit I joined a boat trip to a nearby town located a couple of miles down the coast. To this western visitor it was a place of contradictions, particularly in its attitude to that mightiest of sea beasts, the whale. The town, I have since discovered, is widely considered to be the birthplace of the country's traditional whaling industry, and it celebrates the animal in a large and colourful mural, and those who hunt it with a statue of a whaler in a pose that suggests whaling was once an Olympic sport. You can watch whales perform at the town's aquarium, then see a full sized whale skeleton and objects carved from whale bone at the nearby whale museum. When you've finished in there you can nip to the restaurant located directly opposite the aquarium and order a meal consisting of, you've guessed it, whale meat.

I'll state up front that I dislike the whole concept of performing animals and get no enjoyment from watching sea creatures leap through hoops for the amusement of the general public. American marine circuses like Sea World are bad enough, but there was something about the Tiaji aquarium that really creeped me out. It wasn't so much the animal performances themselves, which television had made a familiar sight, but the conditions in which the animals were and presumably are still held. The whale in particular was visibly unhappy with its captivity and spent every second between performances with its nose pressed against the netting that sectioned off the small area to which it was confined. This desire to break free was unsurprising given the volume at which music was left playing between performances. Given the aural sensitivity of sea mammals, this must have been torturous for the poor creature.

But even as I was complaining to my Japanese companion I was very aware of the cultural differences at play here, that as an outsider I was passing a western judgement on something that the other (Japanese) visitors clearly did not regard as abnormal. Then again, I'm sure I'd have a similar reaction to bullfighting should I ever choose to visit Spain, but with a bullfight there's at least a chance of seeing the animal turn the tables and shove a horn sharply up its tormentor's arse. So, as a courteous visitor in a foreign land, I dutifully expressed my discomfort to my companion (even she thought the ever-playing music was a bit much, I should note), then boarded the boat and returned to my hotel to soak up the spa water and gobble down the sushi. In this case, ignorance really was a strange kind of bliss.

The Cove, a documentary directed by Louie Psihoyos, produced by Paula DuPré Pesman and Fisher Stevens and winner of this year's Best Documentary Oscar, had already gained some notoriety by the time we got to screen it at the film society I help to run. There was thus quite a bit of pre-film discussion, to which I contributed a few stories about my experience of this small Wakayama town and its seemingly schizophrenic attitude to the whale. As the screening time approached, we all took our seats, the lights went down and the film began, and as marine activist and former Flipper trainer Richard O'Barry took us on a whistle-stop tour of the Japanese coastal town of Taiji, I began to experience a disconcerting sense of déjà-vu. It seemed to me that Taiji looked an awful lot like that town I had just been talking to my fellow audience members about. It even had a whale museum and a heroic statue of a harpooner. Wait a minute, I know those animal themed boats. And where is it that O'Barry is being interviewed by the local police? The Hotel Urashima? Oh crap...

For those of you still unaware, The Cove charts the efforts of O'Barry and a crew of recruited activists to document on film the annual rounding up and slaughter of dolphins that takes place at a secretive and protected cove in Taiji, their purpose being alert the world to the practice and bring international pressure to bear on Japan to stop it. Structured more like an adventure thriller than a documentary, the process of securing that footage proves genuinely fascinating, as Barry recruits like-minded party members, has a sympathetic effects crew at Industrial Light and Magic construct fake rocks in which to hide cameras, and leads his team on a secretive night raid to plant them in the cove in order to film the slaughter. It certainly has all the required components of a good thriller: a group of morally righteous heroes fighting against difficult odds, aggressive and unlikable bad guys (that the former are English-speaking Caucasians and the latter are foreign is an unfortunate adhesion to genre convention), ingenious twists, nail-biting tension (the raid on the cove is shot on night-vision and peppered with urgent whispers), a horrifying climax and a triumphant finale in which O'Barry walks into an International Whaling Commission conference with a large flat screen TV strapped to his chest on which the captured footage is playing.

But herein lies the rub. Although structured to be involving and exciting from the off, an approach that should by rights have opened the film up to an audience beyond those already sympathetic to its message, it was sold almost exclusively on that climactic footage, and for many this proved to be a barrier they were unwilling to climb. A number of people I've spoken to, including some directly involved with marine conservation, have not seen the film precisely because they didn't want to watch real-life footage of a dolphin slaughter; indeed, our cinema screening was the most poorly attended of the year for precisely that reason. Thus, an audience that by rights should be delivered an ecological body blow wrapped up in an entertainment package are staying away because they know that the punch is coming and have a good idea how much it will hurt. It's something producer Fisher Stevens acknowledges in the interview below, where he wonders if perhaps they should have marketed the film as a thriller rather than a documentary.

It's a tough sell, sure, but I'd still urge even the sensitive to see the film and encourage others to do likewise. Knowing something is going on is not the same as watching it happen, and unless you are already involved in marine conservation then it could just spur you to action on some level, something that is frankly unlikely to occur if you just put it out of your mind for the sake of emotional comfort. It's taken some time, but the film is now playing in Japan and pulling in decent sized audiences, and it's there that it could prove a more potent catalyst for change. The hope, as ever, lies with the younger audience, as many of the older generation of Japanese regard activists like O'Barry and Psihoyos as interfering outsiders with a poor understanding of Japanese tradition, and right there sits one of the biggest barriers to change in any country. After seeing the film I contacted an older Japanese friend, the one who had accompanied me to Taiji on the first visit to the region, and told her about the film and what was going on in the Cove, expecting the information to prompt surprise and even horror. Her reaction was telling: without a flicker of emotion she replied, "Oh, are they still doing that?"

Video interview: FISHER STEVENS

Fisher Stevens is one of the two producers of The Cove (the other was Paula DuPré Pesman, whose previous work includes associate producer credit on three of the Harry Potter films) but is more widely known for his acting credits. Starting out in theatre, he's since appeared in a wide range of popular and cult films and TV shows, having made his film debut in Tony Maylam's 1981 The Burning (in which his character was beheaded) and subsequently appeared in Baby It's You (1983), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), The Flamingo Kid (1984), Short Circuit (1986), Columbo (1989), Bob Roberts (1992), Friends (1995), Hackers (1995), Homicide: Life on the Street (1995), Law and Order (1995), Four Days in September (1997), Frasier (2001), Ugly Betty (2010) and Lost (2008-2010), plus a good many others (see the bar to the right.

In the interview below, he talks to Timothy E. RAW at the Ischia Global Film and Music Festival about his acting career, and the impact and international success of The Cove.


Fisher Stevens
Filmography as actor:

LOL: Laughing Out Loud (2011)
Rising Stars (2010)
Henry's Crime (2010)
The Experiment (2010)
Fake (2010)
The Mentalist (2010)
Lost (2008-10)
Ugly Betty (2010)
Numb3rs (2009)
Medium (2009)
Take (2007)
The Grean Teem (2009)
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2008)
Awake (2007)
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2004-2007)
Red Angel (2007)
Kettle of Fish (2006)
Slow Burn (2005)
Undiscovered (2005)
Factotum (2005)
Dr. Vegas (2004)
On the Couch (2004)
Hope & Faith (2004)
The Lives They Lived (2003)
Replay (2003)
Easy Six (2003)
Anything Else (2003)
Uptown Girls (2003)
Kill the Poor (2003)
Hack (2002)
Undisputed (2002)
Is It College Yet? (2002)
The Moth (2001)
100 Centre Street (2001)
Jenifer (2001)
Piñero (2001)
Frasier (2001)
Prison Song (2001)
Sam the Man (2001)
3 A.M. (2001)
Early Edition (1996-2000)
The Hunger (2000)
The Tic Code (1999)
Taxman (1999)
Four Days in September (1997)
The Right to Remain Silent (1996)
Law & Order (1995)
Homicide: Life on the Street (1995)
The Pompatus of Love (1995)
Hackers (1995)
Cold Fever (1995)
Friends (1995)
Only You (1994)
Nina Takes a Lover (1994)
Key West (1993)
Super Mario Bros. (1993)
When the Party's Over (1993)
Accidental Hero (1992)
Bob Roberts (1992)
Lift (1992)
Mystery Date (1991)
It's Called the Sugar Plum (1991)
The Marrying Man (1991)
Reversal of Fortune (1990)
The Young Riders (1990)
Point of View (1990)
Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989)
Columbo (1989)
Short Circuit 2 (1988)
Tall Tales & Legends (1986)
The Boss' Wife (1986)
Short Circuit (1986)
My Science Project (1985)
The Flamingo Kid (1985)
The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
CBS Schoolbreak Special (1984)
Ryan's Hope (1983)
Baby It's You (1983)
The Burning (1981)

Filmography as producer / executive producer

Hollywood Renegade (2010)
Blank City (2009)
The Cove (2009)
Tenderness (2009)
Balls Out: The Gary Houseman Story (2009)
The Grean Teem (2009)
The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
Awake (2007)
Feast of Love (2007)
Meet Bill (2007)
Crazy Love (2007)
Wedding Daze (2006)
Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Slow Burn (2005)
Yes (2004)
Uptown Girls (2003)
Swimfan (2002)
Piñero (2001)
Sam the Man (2001)
The Château (2001)
Famous (2000)

Filmography as director

The Highest Tide (2011)
Crazy Love (2007)
Early Edition (1998-1999)
Phinehas (1996)
Call of the Wylie (1995)

article posted
26 September 2010