In February, Planet Experts sat down with Louie Psihoyos, the Academy Award-winning director of The Cove, a shocking investigation into the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, to discuss his latest film, Racing Extinction.
Thus far, the Earth has borne witness to five mass extinction events, the most famous of which occurred 66 million years ago when the age of dinosaurs was brought to a fiery conclusion. Yet remote as this planetary disaster may seem to the “civilized” twenty-first century, the next one could be just around the corner.
Last summer, a Duke University study revealed that flora and fauna are dying out at a rate one-thousand times faster than they did before the rise of humanity.
“We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” said the study’s lead author, biologist Stuart Pimm. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.”
In Racing Extinction, director Louie Psihoyos zeroes in on the causes behind #6, examining how fossil fuels are contributing to climate change and using guerilla filming techniques to infiltrate the black market animal trade.
Who Is Louie Psihoyos?
Fortune Magazine has named Louie Psihoyos “one of the ten top photographers in the world.” His photographs have appeared on the covers of hundreds of magazines, including Smithsonian, Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated and New York Magazine, and his work has also been featured on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and National Geographic Television.
Hired directly out of college by National Geographic, Psihoyos spent the next two decades capturing the world in his lens. Since that time, he co-founded the Ocean Preservation Society with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark and directed the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, which premiered in theatres in 2009.
Playing less like a documentary and more like a thriller-turned-horror-story, The Cove revealed for the first time in history the grisly fishing practices of Taiji, Japan. Herded into a secluded cove, dolphins are rounded up by fishermen and systematically slaughtered for their meat. A select few are kept alive as the water in the cove literally runs red with blood, and these are sold to marine parks for as much as $200,000 apiece. About 2,700 dolphins are slaughtered in Taiji each year; an annual 20,000 are killed in Japan overall.
The U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, has called the practice “inhumane” and the documentary sparked a wave of protest both in Japan and around the world.
Psihoyos says the exposé made him few friends in the land of the rising sun. He went beyond conventional (i.e. “legal”) means to obtain the footage that he did, running a covert operation he likens to a cross between a heist film and a James Bond adventure.
“There’s arrest warrants out for me in Japan, I’m told.” He listed out the offenses one by one: “Conspiracy to disrupt commerce, trespassing and photographing undercover cops without their permission…”
Without giving anything away, he hinted that he’d soon have to add another country to his “no fly” list once Racing Extinction premieres. “There might be another country I can’t go to,” he said, “another very big Asian country after this movie comes out.”
For both The Cove and Racing Extinction, Psihoyos brings together people with very particular sets of skills: Getaway drivers, surveillance whizzes. “You have this group of incredible people,” said Psihoyos. “The inspiration for the Tony Stark character in The Avengers, Elon Musk, the creator of the best car ever made, the Tesla, he’s in the film, and he talks about the need to get off fossil fuels to prevent an environmental collapse that will be followed by an economic collapse.”
I spoke with Mr. Psihoyos a month after Racing Extinction premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and in the same week the film snagged a major distribution deal with The Discovery Channel.
Planet Experts: Your first documentary film, The Cove, won over 70 awards globally, including the 2009 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. How did that success affect your decision to make Racing Extinction, which was formerly titled 6?
Louie Psihoyos: Well, with The Cove I didn’t think anybody would want to see a movie about dolphins getting killed. That wasn’t what the movie was about – ultimately, it was about a much bigger subject. It sort of emboldened me to say, listen, this is the biggest story of our time, bar none.
My friends in paleontology, who have a vast appreciation for deep time, they said, when you look at the human experience from the industrial revolution to the end of this century, at 2100, people will look back and World War II will be a footnote compared to the decimation that we’re causing the planet. This is the biggest story in the world.
I think doing The Cove gave me the feeling that people are ready for an exciting movie. We’re telling this story so it’s not…I’ll say it: It’s not going to be like a dry NOVA documentary that’s only appealing to the smart crowd. This is the film that I think any 15-year-old or 80-year-old will enjoy. It’s a thriller, it’s an action/adventure film in the genre of The Cove or The Avengers.
There’s people that I respect a lot that are in this film that aren’t just thinking about short-term solutions they’re thinking about, how do we save the planet for future generations [and] not just for our shareholders next quarter.
What’s going on right now is we’re losing species faster than our ability to even record they’re here on the planet with us. That should give anybody pause. We’re going through a mass extinction event right now. I don’t think we can prevent it, but I think we can mitigate it. It’s like triage. It’s this irreversible damage to the planet, but there’s a lot left worth saving.
PE: Your last film definitely hewed closer to a more exciting – and disturbing – tone than your typical documentary. The result was that, in addition to winning the Oscar for it, you actually motivated a lot of people to take action. How do you achieve activism and engagement with a larger audience?
LP: We have a much higher bar doing an activist documentary than a typical Hollywood film. We still need to get butts in seats, we still need to get the $10 and the box of popcorn to satisfy the theatre owners. But at the end of the day, if we don’t do that, as well as motivate people to take action, we’ve failed. It’s not just about the money for us or selling popcorn, it’s really about, how do you tell a story that’s really exciting for young people, get them into the theatre, then get them riled up like we did with The Cove. We had over a million followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and we can motivate those people to action. And now, with this bigger story, my hope is that we can galvanize a whole new generation to take action.
PE: The stated mission of your non-profit, the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), is to “provide an exclusive lens for the public and media to observe the beauty as well as the destruction of the oceans, while motivating change.” How can a documentary do that?
LP: Films are an incredibly powerful tool. I call them a weapon: A Weapon of mass construction. If you think about it: You drop a bomb, you kill people. Make a film, you got allies. That’s what we’re trying to do: to create an army of people that are like-minded so they realize what we’re doing, what we’re facing. Most people – I bet 99 percent of the people out on the street – have no idea that we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event. If you go out in nature and you’re talking to anthropologists, paleontologists, biologists – they’re keenly aware that this is going on.
PE: In a recent interview with Grist, you said you hoped that people who see the film are left with respect for the things that they can’t comprehend, can’t see or can’t hear. What do you respect? What holds you in awe?
LP: That’s a big question. Our bodies are actually a fairly blunt tool to try to perceive all that there is to perceive with nature. And let me explain that. There’s a point in the film where this researcher in our film, Austin Richards, is showing us how you can actually see the world of carbon dioxide with a special camera. It’s a FLIR camera – a Forward-Looking InfraRred camera – with a special carbon dioxide filter. And he said, ‘When you’re looking out at the world through these eyes, it’s like you have a grand piano in your living room and you can only hear one note on it.’ The band of light that we can perceive is very, very thin.
It’s the same thing with our auditory experience. We look at the world through these eyes and ears and think that’s all there is to perceive but there’s actually a vast world that’s beyond our perception. It sounds strange but it’s true. And you can see it with the camera. You can see the hidden world of greenhouse gases, as we show in the movie.
Also, our ears. The loudest song in the animal kingdom is from a blue whale and most of it is below our threshold for hearing. Even if you could hear it you wouldn’t recognize it as a song because they have a different metronome. The notes in their song can be as long as 60 seconds. And with that loud voice they’re actually able to communicate across ocean basins. So they can communicate these songs thousands and thousands of miles.
So there’s this whole hidden world that we try to give people a glimpse of in the movie. The idea is not to make us feel small but to make us be in awe of the world that we can’t see. We’re all connected to all these creatures.
One thing that we talk about in the movie is we may be losing plankton as much as one percent a year.
PE: I didn’t realize it was that high.
LP: Well it might not be that high. It might be higher, it might be lower; we don’t have a real base for it but we know that we’re losing plankton. It’s not just the base of the food chain, it’s responsible for at least every other breath that you take. Plankton generates far more oxygen than all the land plants on the planet, so the idea that we’re messing with it on this vast scale because of acidification, which is related to the burning of fossil fuels. We didn’t know about that 15 years ago, but now we know that it’s a huge problem.
We know for sure that we’re decimating coral reefs all around the planet with acidification. By 2050, all the coral reefs will be in a state of dissolving; by 2100, they’ll be mostly gone. This is the rainforest of the ocean. Twenty-five percent of the species that live in the ocean live on coral reefs and we’re losing them.
We’re at this juncture in history where we’re now aware of what we’re doing, and now the question is, how do you create the awareness and then motivate people to take action and stop all of this?
PE: In your films, you’ve become known for using guerilla tactics that stretch the limits of legality. Could you have made your last film, or this one, without breaking the law?
LP: No, we couldn’t have done it. The Cove – we tried for several weeks to do the story legally. We spent a day, seven hours in negotiations with the fishermen’s union hunting the dolphins, we spent another five the following day at the mayor’s office. They all declined, and it was only then that we started going undercover because that was the only way to do the story. My colleagues in China tried to get into the black market shops for a decade and they’ve always been chased out.
PE: In your followup to your Oscar acceptance speech, you made a joke about being able to have this much of an impact while coming from the land-locked state of Colorado, where OPS is based. You yourself were born in Iowa. Why is ocean health so important to you?
LP: Even if you’ve never been to the ocean before, you still have to breathe air.
The oceans are connected to everything. ‘When the oceans die,’ Paul Watson says, ‘we die.’ And it’s true, it’s absolutely true. The motto of our organization, the Ocean Preservation Society, is ‘We’re not trying to save the whole planet, just 70 percent of it.’ With this new film, we’re trying to save the other 30 percent, too.
The oceans control climate, they control the atmosphere. Everything’s controlled by the ocean. It seems arrogant that humans can have an affect on it, but we’re realizing now that that’s true.
PE: Tackling a subject as big as the extinction is an objectively heavy undertaking. Was there anything you filmed or found that gave you hope?
LP: There’s a lot of stuff that gives me hope in this. There’s a place in Mexico, an island, where they’re killing more sharks than any other island on the east coast of Mexico. There’s this amazing guy in our group, Shawn Heinrichs, who turned it around so that now it’s the biggest shark watching village in all of Mexico. He’s taken that same model to a place in Indonesia – a little island called Lamakera where they’re killing more mantas than any other place on the planet.
You see that one person can make a difference. And that’s the hope of this film. We’re all just one person. You know? These guys actually changed governments, they changed laws, they changed the perception that this animal could actually be worth more in the water than on the butcher’s block. Because you kill a manta and it’s going to be worth about $500 after you take out the gills. And the meat’s really pungent, it’s not good to eat. But when you add up what these animals are potentially worth to a tourist? It comes out to like a million dollars apiece.
So if you’re going to convert a culture from basically an extraction one to a conservation based one, the money is far more. It’s more sustainable, too.
On Thursday, September 24, Planet Experts will host a screening and panel discussion of Racing Extinction at the Laemmle NoHo theatre in Los Angeles. The panel will include Charles Hambleton, producer of The Cove, as well as Planet Experts Dr. Ryan Harrigan, Benjamin Kay, Dana Roeber Murray and Dr. Heather Rally, who appears in the film.
For more information on the film, including screening locations and dates, visit the Racing Extinction website.