This article first appeared on JAPAN Forward.
(First of Three Parts)
“The award for Best Director goes to Keiko Yagi for Behind THE COVE!”
I was immersed in applause and waves of congratulations as the master of ceremonies urged me to the center of the stage. I complied and gave a short speech in broken English: “Whaling in Japan tends to be unilaterally portrayed as unethical and atrocious. I am both grateful for the opportunity of presenting differing opinions on this multifaceted issue, and that my work has been valued highly.”
The 2018 London International Filmmaker Festival awards ceremony was held at a four-star hotel in London on February 17. I produced the film in 2015 to counter The Cove, which received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. At the London festival, Behind THE COVE received nominations for the 2018 awards in three categories: best feature documentary, best director of a feature documentary, and best editing of a feature documentary.
The Cove fiercely criticized the annual dolphin hunt practiced in the village of Taiji, Wakayama prefecture. The film received an Academy Award and had a massive influence on the way its audience viewed whaling. When it was released in 2009, an uproar arose across the globe against Japan’s whaling and dolphin hunting practices. Anti-whaling groups gathered in the seaport town on the Kii Peninsula to protest the practice, as if preparing for battle.
The Cove was unjustly biased, having been produced based on one-sided interviews of activists opposed to the whaling and dolphin fishery in Japan. Views from the other side, including those who support the fishery, were not presented at all. A documentary must be objective by definition, presenting the issue at hand in context and the opinions of both the supporting and opposing groups.
When making Behind the Cove, I purposely chose not to follow the production style of The Cove. Instead, I listened carefully to the voices of those who had lived alongside whales and had engaged in whaling for many years, and I listened just as carefully to the views of activists against whaling. I asked thought-provoking questions to both sides, captured their views on film and endeavored to present the current state of the Japanese whaling issue as it is. I felt the need to take advantage of the film’s length and delve deeply into the topic, as compared to the superficial coverage available in normal news reports with tight time limits.
A true documentary must maintain the balance of the seesaw by showing both sides of the debate. It cannot distort the truth by shifting the seesaw’s pivot in order to deceive the audience into thinking it is balanced when it’s not. It is important that a documentary stays neutral and conveys reality.
London is a city where activists, unable to comprehend the practice of using whales and dolphins for food, engage in fervent anti-whaling protests. As a whaling nation, Japan became an obvious target—in February, for example, the day before the ceremony, activists gathered in front of the Japanese embassy to chant “Shame on you!” Slowly I have become convinced that receiving an award for a film that powerfully depicts the views from the Japanese side, in a place that can be considered the headquarters of anti-whaling activism, has profound implications for change in the public’s understanding of whaling.
Members of the award committee that selected my film for the Best Director award did not seem to have a deep understanding of the whaling issue, and some were probably even against whaling. However, they explained that Behind the Cove was “neutral,” “passionate,” and “wonderful as a film.”
I was extremely happy that my film was recognized for its neutrality and presentation of views from both sides. Behind the Cove is the first full-fledged documentary that I have shot and edited. When I started the project, I was not particularly aware of the background of the whaling issue or the context of protests of the dolphin fishery. Unexpected circumstances gave me an opportunity to talk to a leading figure on the topic, after which I felt compelled to inform the public about the full truth.
Numerous obstacles stood in my way, and I became the target of attack and backlash. On the day the film was supposed to premiere in Japan, a group of anti-whaling hackers caused a temporary suspension of the film’s official website and the cinema’s website.
I attempted to expand the film’s audience abroad, propelled by my gratitude towards those who had helped me. This was the reason I chose to participate in the film festival in the United Kingdom.
Even though I put my soul into this film and had to face many adversities making it, receiving the Best Director award made me feel that it was all worth it. Overjoyed at receiving the award, I blurted to the audience at the ceremony, “Whale meat is delicious!” Many Americans and Europeans at the venue laughed and applauded.
Keiko Yagi is a film director, camera and editor. Her first documentary film Behind ‘THE COVE’ won the award for Best Director at the 2018 London International Filmmaker Festival in February, and it also got the New Perspective Prize at the 2018 Japan Wildlife Film Festival in April.
(Click here to watch the digest of Behind ‘THE COVE’.)