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SUNDANCE 2019 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: Sea of Shadows

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- Vienna-based director Richard Ladkani’s environmental documentary plays like a high-tension drug-cartel thriller

Review: Sea of Shadows

Sea of Shadows is an environmental disaster documentary that plays like a drug-cartel film. Showing in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the recent Sundance Film Festival, Vienna-based director Richard Ladkani’s movie follows the attempts by a group of conservationists to stop the illegal totoaba trade in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The swim bladder of the totoaba bass is rich in collagen, and in China, it is believed that it possesses a miraculous healing power that improves skin texture and makes people look younger. On the black market, one of these swim bladders is more valuable than gold, and can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. For Mexican cartels, these fish are basically aquatic cocaine. Cartels will do whatever it takes to capture them and sell them to the Chinese mafia. 

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Perhaps even worse than the criminal side to the totoaba trade are the gill nets that these pirates use, which kill much of the other marine life in an environment so spectacular that French explorer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau described it as the “aquarium of the world”. In these waters also swim the vaquita porpoise, a subspecies of whale that is the most endangered ocean mammal on Earth. With fewer than 15-30 vaquita still living today, it will not take long for them to become extinct. 

Having set the scene, Ladkani then makes an action movie. It’s a film replete with smugglers, eco-warriors, the cartel, the Chinese mafia and corrupt government officials. Even Michael Mann would have struggled to come up with some of these links. Our heroic protagonists are a bunch of disparate groups and individuals who all have to come together and pool their resources in order to combat the power of the well-known cartel baron. There is Andrea Crosta, co-founder of the Elephant Action League; Dr Cynthia Smith, programme manager at VaquitaCPR; Jack Hutton, a drone operator for Sea Shepherd; Carlos Loret De Mola, one of Mexico’s best-known TV presenters; Javier Valverde, a fisherman from San Felipe; and some anonymous investigators whose faces are blurred out to protect their identities. Ladkani weaves these stories together with a mixture of interviews, voice-overs, dramatic footage from drones and live-action sequences.

There is some high tension delivered with, for example, scenes of naval pursuits of fishing boats. Ladkani emphasises the daily nature of these chases, which can therefore feel repetitive. He wants to get across just how challenging the attempt to save the marine life is and the life-threating danger in which the warriors place themselves. It is a documentary that brings home the awful truth of how hard it is to stop any organised illegal trade worth millions of dollars. It will be intriguing to see if Sea of Shadows enjoys the same results as Ladkani’s The Ivory Game, which led to the Chinese government banning the trading of ivory two months after the film was released on a VoD platform. Following its Sundance outing, National Geographic Documentary Films bought worldwide rights to Sea of Shadows for a reported $3 million, which should go some way to highlighting this harrowing situation.

Sea of Shadows was produced by Austria’s Terra Mater Factual Studios, in association with Leonardo DiCaprio, Appian Way, Malaika Pictures and Wild Lens Collective.

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