Star of Oscar Winning 'The Cove' Recaps His On-Stage Political Action and the Academy's Censorship

Ric O'Barry make the best of his few moments on stage at the Oscars to make a brave gesture in defense of dolphins.

Editor's Note: You can read AlterNet's review ofThe Cove here.

It’s axiomatic that any time the powers-that-be try to censor political speech they just end up drawing more attention to the message they wanted to squelch.

Evidence of that truth was on display last night during the 82 Annual Academy Awards, when Ric O’Barry — protagonist of the film, The Cove, which took home the trophy for Best Documentary — tried to use his 15 seconds of screen time to jolt new energy into the campaign to halt the dolphin capture and slaughter in Taiji, Japan.

As soon as he got on stage, co-director Fisher Stevens rattled off the obligatory Thank-Yous then included, “My hero, Ric O’Barry, who is not only a hero to this species but to all species.” That’s when O’Barry unfurled a small, plain, black-and-white banner reading, “Text DOLPHIN to 44144.”

That was enough to get the Oscar censors’ attention. Before the other co-director, Louie Psihoyos, could get in more than his own single Thank You, the camera cut to the audience and then the orchestra started in on its “exit-the-stage-now” theme.

But the Oscar producers’ shoddy treatment of O’Barry and company only succeeded in getting even more attention to the cause to protect Japan dolphins. This morning’s LA Times gave O’Barry a thumbs up, and the Seattle Post Intelligencer also offered a nod, as did all sorts of bloggers.

“I didn’t know until this morning that holding up the sign was the right thing to do,” O’Barry told me this morning as he prepped for an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that will take place later today. “People are taking action because of it. But the Academy doesn’t like that. And I thought I was screwing up Louie’s speech when they turned on the exit music.”

Psihoyos got a chance to get say his piece backstage, telling reporters that, “The biggest thing will be when dolphins are no longer slaughtered for meat” and  “If people take action, [they] can solve this problem." As of this morning, about 40,000 people have sent the “dolphin” texts, which connects them to an online petition sponsored by Care2.

Far more important, though, is that the Oscar award will open the way for a widespread theatrical release in Japan. As O’Barry wrote in an email to supporters at 2 am this morning:

“Japan has 126 million people; only 600 have seen The Coveso far. Those who saw it were shocked and dismayed that this slaughter was happening in their country. We need to enlist their help and the help of millions of their fellow citizens to stop the Japanese government from issuing 23,000 permits annually to slaughter dolphins.”

As I came to learn when I traveled to Japan with O’Barry last September to write a profile of him for the Journal, the only way the dolphin slaughter will stop is if ordinary Japanese come to oppose it. The movie will have to be a key part of generating that opposition, since many Japanese are unaware of the annual hunt. “It’s really all about Japan for us,” O’Barry said to me this morning. “It guarantees there is interest in seeing this, even if the government doesn’t want people to see it. People will see it now.”

He said, “If another documentary had won, we would have gotten bumped. It’s a major breakthrough in the campaign. It guarantees a theatrical release in Japan. The distributor was struggling. But a movie that has won the Academy Awards will get into theaters.”

O’Barry said he was extremely nervous as he and the filmmakers walked on stage, but he knew that he had to unfurl his banner message:  “I had butterflies in my stomach. I wanted to throw up on my shoes. But I knew that one billion people were watching, and I had to do it.”

O’Barry is no stranger to the movie making business, having spent years as a stuntman and animal trainer on the Flipper series and number of other television shows and films. Still, he said that being at the Oscars made him feel a bit like an odd fish. “I felt different than everyone else in the room,” he said, recalling his emotions in the moments before the award was announced. “I’m not in the industry. I am out of time and out of place. I don’t belong there at all. I am thinking what this will mean to the campaign if The Cove is mentioned.”

O’Barry said that it was great that James Cameron shook his hand as he walked down the aisle, and that backstage George Clooney told Psihoyos that it was lame he didn’t get a chance to talk. Oh, and that “the guy” who gave them the Oscar trophies was very encouraging and complimentary and said he had seen The Cove twice. O’Barry might not have recognized him, but “the guy” was, well, Matt Damon.

To learn more about the effort to halt the dolphin killing in Japan, visit: www.savejapandolphins.org.

Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island JournalJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics.  In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne Reader, Orion, Gastronomica, Grist.org, Alternet.org, E magazine, and Yes!  He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power.
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