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By Alicia Van Couvering

Leading up to the Oscars on March 7, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Alicia Van Couvering interviewed The Cove director Louis Psihoyos for our ’09 Sundance Film Festival coverage. The Cove is nominated for Best Documentary.

Unlike other films playing in our three-part look at crossover artists at Sundance, The Cove is not playing in New Frontier, but in the Documentary Competition, and that’s despite its director’s non-traditional background. Louie Psihoyos was one of the world’s top-ranked photographers, a staff member at National Geographic who had traveled the world taking portraits of the world’s most famous people and abstract concepts (you try photographing “science.”) He was also an avid diver who witnessed year by year the physical destruction of the world’s oceans. He and his friend Jim Clarke, founder of Netscape and WebMD, decided to form an action organization — the Oceanic Preservation Society — to use their skills to raise awareness.

“The first part of my transition was to become an activist,” says Psihoyos, who was initially planning to simply take photographs on his journey. Then someone told him the story of a small Japanese village , where tens of thousands of dolphins were slaughtered every year, and the eccentric, former-Flipper dolphin trainer who has devoted his life to stopping these fisherman and saving the dolphins. “My son used to have sleepovers with Stephen Spielberg’s kids, and once we were talking and I told him that I was starting the OPS and that I was a still photographer. He said, ‘Never make a movie with boats or animals.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”

Boats and animals, Psihoyos would find out, was not the least of the complications making this documentary – the Japanese government and national fishing business were committed to shutting him down, and they set everything from private investigators, knife-wielding thugs and armored squad cars against him. Psihoyos assembled an Oceans 11-style crew that included a career rock n’ roll road manager (to get military-grade thermal cameras across the border), a former member of the Canadian air force aviation technician (for hidden camera rigs), artists at Industrial Light and Magic (for fake rocks to house hidden cameras), a pair of world-class free divers… but no one with any film experience.

“As a still photographer, you might climb up some mountain and dangle off a rope, but you’re not risking the life of anyone but yourself,” Psihoyos says. “In Japan they can keep you in jail for 28 days without charging you; we were being followed by police all the time. A real filmmaker would have been too smart to go out and make the film that we made. The plan was like a result of watching too many Jacques Cousteau and James Bond movies.”

Indeed, a traditional documentarian, especially one with this much at stake, usually wouldn’t jump into the field without a clear plan of action towards an end result. Psihoyos, luckily, was not a traditional documentarian. “We shot just like a National Geographic story – you go out in the field and you find the picture.” After their filming in the field was done, Psihoyos employed the expertise of editors and producers who helped him find a way to structure the narrative with interviews and voice over. “There’s a quote [by Orson Welles] – ‘making a film is like painting a picture with an army.’”

Psihoyos has thought deeply about the opportunities that film provides. “I started out just wanting to make the most beautiful images possible, and that’s no different from photography. You’re trying to burn retinas and enter people’s consciousness. But with film you’re burning them at multiple frames per second,” reflects Psihoyos. “Telling a story with stills is a two-dimensional experience. You’re always trying to suggest movement – and then here with film you can actually capture movement. I feel like I’ve been a caveman for my entire life and I’ve just discovered fire for the first time.”

Most importantly for The Cove filmmakers, making a good movie is only part of the goal. The film is a tool for his activism, and he made it with the hope of actually changing people’s behavior. The Sundance acceptance, Psihoyos admits, provoked tears of joy. “It was like, you work under all this horror and stress for four years, and in one moment the film becomes real. When we started, I said ‘I’m going to aim for Sundance,’ because as a non-filmmaker Sundance always sounded like this mecca. People said that was ridiculous, but they said the same thing when I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. The crazy fates of the universe will support you if you have the confidence and the will to overcome all the obstacles.”

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