Last year's Oscar-winning documentary feature, The Cove, continued to reverberate during this year's Oscars. That's because the director, Louie Psihoyos, had just completed a mass mailing of his DVD to every single resident in Taiji, with the help of a group of local, anonymous Japanese activists. Around this time the local government ended the dolphin-killing season earlier than scheduled, sparing thousands of dolphins, a move that may or may not have been linked to the DVD distribution. (We emailed the Earth Island Institute to find out if there was a link, but have not yet heard back.)
Innovation in film takes many forms, from state of the art equipment to new styles of cinematography and directing, and Psihoyos' niche is in how he's approaching what comes after the film is made—his in-your-face decision to bombard local residents with the DVD puts a new spin on "for your consideration." But then again, it was Psihoyos' approach that practically made the story what it was—an Oceans 11-style, rules-bending mob story of dolphin rescuers.
"We sent a DVD to every single household in Taiji," Psihoyos tells Fast Company. "We had a team of Japanese people actually ask to do it for us. And the Japanese are shy about exposing these issues. They went through the Taiji phonebook and sent the DVDs to everyone with a listed phone number and address."
And the issue is very personal for Psihoyos.
"I have mercury poisoning," he says. "I got a notice from the Colorado Board of Health telling me to stop eating certain seafoods. So this is a personal problem. And a health problem. Mercury is deleterious to the health of small children. So if this movie can be distributed to local Taijians and save their health, that is the best outcome of our movie."
After all, he says, "We're not just movie-makers, we're starting a movement."
Psihoyos sees the role of documentary film to promote social issues. At last year's Oscars, George Clooney came up to him and after Psihoyos told him that Oceans 11 was an inspiration for The Cove. Clooney told him that The Cove was a much better film, according to Psihoyos. When Psihoyos asked why, Clooney said, "because it's real."
Psihoyos and his film helped to reduce demand for dolphin meat by several millions of dollars per year. The mayor has made that fact clear and resents the damage that the film has made in the local economy. And the goal now is to get more Japanese people to join the campaign. Psihoyos' team is setting up the Japanese version of the website and the Japanese language version of the film will be made available for free for the public.
And looking ahead, Psihoyos is already at work on his next film—about mass extinction and preserving the world's biodiversity and species, for which he's got big backers from the business world. Psihoyos says that as wealthy people spend much of their time by the ocean, the cause of ocean preservation is an easy sell.
"We're losing plankton. We're losing the lungs of the planet," says Psihoyos. "Filmmakers always use the charismatic mega fauna, but the smaller things are important, like bees and the creatures that sing. Everything has been singing, but we haven't been listening."
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