Sea of Shadows film review

It has been nearly a year since I last wrote on V-log, and in that time, the vaquita’s situation has continued to worsen.

The most recent estimates put the population at 15 individuals, with the lucrative totoaba swim bladder trade stronger than ever. A fierce partnership between smugglers in Mexico and China creates a perfect storm of greed and corruption, with an innocent porpoise caught in the middle. NGOs struggle to find solutions, and the government fares even worse. A battle rages between legal and illegal fishermen, townspeople, the Mexican Navy, journalists, conservationists, police, and government officials, often in unexpected ways. The stage is set for one of the best documentaries of the past decade.

Sea of Shadows is the product of many years of meticulous planning, collaborating, and filming. Purchased by National Geographic after critical acclaim at Sundance, this film is a joint project between Terra Mater Factual Studios, Appian Way, Malaika Pictures, and The Wild Lens Collective, with Leonardo DiCaprio as executive producer and The Ivory Game’s Richard Ladkani as director.

Spoiler warning

The film is thoroughly gripping from the very first scene, showing a nighttime chase between illegal fishermen and Sea Shepherd that gets your arm hairs raised and heart pounding before the title card even appears. After the beautifully animated title sequence establishes the vaquita’s situation, we are thrown right into the action. The film is comprised of five intertwining narratives: Mexican reporter Carlos Loret de Mola searches for the truth behind the totoaba cartel and its kingpin; Italian environmentalist Andrea Crosta and his team of undercover investigators at Earth League International seek to unravel the link between China and illegal Mexican fishermen; American veterinarian Dr. Cynthia Smith and the rest of the Vaquita CPR project team desperately try to capture and save the last few vaquitas from the now-deadly waters they inhabit; drone operator Jack Hutton and the rest of Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro crew risk their lives to locate illegal fishermen and remove gillnets from the water; and generational San Felipe fishermen Javier and Alan Valverde struggle with the cost of following the law.

The filmmakers chose the perfect time in history to capture the vaquita’s plight. Never have so many intensely cinematic developments occurred in the fight to save this species. No film could ever capture every single facet of this situation, but Sea of Shadows knows exactly what parts to show in order to tap into the most visceral emotions of the audience. Activists have been talking to people and writing about the vaquita for years, with some undeniable success in terms of public support for the species. However, absolutely nothing can compare to being right there in the action – witnessing fishermen riot and drones and police being shot at; seeing a kingpin murder a soldier and a vaquita slowly die in someone’s arms. Above all, Sea of Shadows is a thriller, and an extremely effective one at that. I have rarely been so engrossed by a film, let alone a documentary.

Best of all, this thriller never forgets its central thesis: the vaquita’s story is just one example of what human greed is doing to this planet, and if we don’t change our ways, we will lose everything.

One thing that this movie made clearer to me than ever before is the destructive power of money. Over the past few years I have come to realize that all of the world’s environmental problems stem from our desire for short-term profits, and this movie hammered this message home in an unforgettable way.

If you can’t get to a theater that is showing it, keep your eyes out for this film on the National Geographic Channel and streaming services sometime soon. I hope Sea of Shadows reaches the masses before it is too late for the vaquita and the other species we share this planet with, because it certainly has the ability to wake people up and make a real difference. That is the power of great cinema.

Final verdict: all 15 remaining vaquitas out of 15

To find a showing near you, learn more about the film, and find out how you can help, please visit the Sea of Shadows website: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/films/sea-of-shadows

And click here to watch Souls of the Vermilion Sea, the 30-minute vaquita film by Sea of Shadows producers Matt Podolsky and Sean Bogle: https://vimeo.com/212128879

Advertisements