“Sea of Shadows” is director Richard Ladkani’s second “eco-thriller.” It’s a documentary ostensibly about scientists, activists, and law enforcement agents who are all trying to protect one of the most endangered species on Earth, but it plays more like a popcorn-friendly narrative feature thanks to the fact that Mexican drug cartels and the Chinese mafia are all intertwined in the story.
“Sea of Shadows” follows the intertwined plights of the the Vaquita porpoise and the totoaba fish in the Sea of Cortez as Mexican drug cartels erect illegal gill nets to catch totoaba to export to China, where there is a thriving illegal market for their bladders, which are purported to have medicinal properties and a single one can fetch $100,000. But those nets also catch the extremely endangered vaquita porpoise, posing a threat to the Sea’s entire delicate ecosystem.
The new genre in which the filmmaker has been working is something he and collaborator Kief Davidson came up with when documenting the illegal ivory trade in Africa in “The Ivory Game.”
“It was very early when we started thinking about films that should have an impact on our audiences and the world, and also wake people up and shake them into action and inspire them to do more for our planet and to think about what’s going on around the world. We said, Well, we have to make films that are actually seen by a wide audience that are not just speaking to the documentary regulars, or to people who are only interested in the environment and the tree huggers or whatever. We need everybody. We like a movement of change. We need to inspire people who do not watch documentaries, who watch feature films. How do we bring them in? How do we get them to see a very dark topic, a topic that actually people will shy away from? … Well, if you like this film, the takeaway should be, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea, what can I do? How can I find out more or maybe help these organizations be more effective?'”
It was the same with “Sea of Shadows,” Ladkani said following a screening of the film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles. “Here I had this problem of two animals I had never heard about. When I was first asked by our executive producer, Leonardo DiCaprio, to make a film about this — he was also our executive on ‘The Ivory Game’ — I was like, excuse me, what? Could you repeat the animals? I never heard about them. It was very clear that we would have to again use the same concept of like, How do we make it engaging and beautiful and dramatic storytelling in terms of finding characters that are like real heroes that inspire people? So this is how I would say the eco-thriller is partly born.”
Then again, the subjects of “Sea of Shadows” — the scientists, conservationists, investigative journalists, and undercover agents fighting the cartels that are hunting the “cocaine of the sea” — are “real badass,” Ladkani said.
“This is like being with Jason Bourne, but the real one, embedded in the car — the language they use, the gadgets they use, the secret cameras,” he said. Subject Andrea Crosta works with a team of former FBI and CIA operatives who have dedicated themselves to saving the planet’s wildlife. “When he talks about 32 years of FBI undercover, it’s like in the movies, so you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re in this real thriller environment that I only know from fiction films,’ but that’s just how it is. So you can’t really shoot it any other way.”
Said Crosta after the IDA screening, “Environmental crime is the fourth largest criminal [enterprise] on the planet, $90 billion per year, and there is no intelligence at all. The result is that we’re fighting these kind of challenges, these kind of issues, like Boy Scouts — like amateurs. So as an organization, we’re always looking for a situation like this one, where … it was wrongly approached as a conservation issue, as an environmental issue for many, many years. When instead it’s a crime issue with serious environmental consequences.”
It is also an environmental issue, though, said scientist Dr. Cynthia Smith.
“This is a symbol of what’s happening all over the planet, and it’s complicated. Trying to save an endangered species in this way is complicated. And Richard was great at shining his light on that. We could talk a lot about marine mammals and all the other endangered species that are in a very similar situations, but the reality is that this is one really good example of a lot of other examples that exist today. So the more people that see this film and understand how complicated and how scary it is, hopefully the more people get involved in helping us turn it around.”
“Sea of Shadows” airs Saturday, Nov. 9 on National Geographic Channel.
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year's most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.
National Geographic’s Sundance award-winning documentary Sea of Shadows will make its global broadcast debut on the network on Saturday, November 9 at 9 PM, premiering commercial free. That will weigh anchor on the film’s global rollout that will see it on small screens in 172 countries and 42 languages.
Its the latest move for the pic since National Geographic Documentary Films acquired the Richard Ladkani-directed documentary in a $3 million worldwide deal, just after it won the Sundance Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary. The film, produced by Terra Mater Factual Studios in association with Leonardo DiCaprio and Appian Way, Malaika Pictures and Wild Lens Collective, is coming off a limited theatrical release in the U.S., Mexico, the UK and Austria.
Sea of Shadows is constructed as a thriller of sorts that spotlights a rescue mission to save a collapsing ecosystem and with it, the vaquita — the most endangered and elusive whale on earth. In the Sea of Cortez, a war is being waged by Mexican drug cartels and Chinese traffickers. A native species of fish, the totoaba, are being poached at an alarming rate because of a superstitious belief among some in China that their bladders — which cost more per ounce than gold — possess miraculous healing powers. Nicknamed the “cocaine of the sea,” the rare fish have triggered a multimillion-dollar black market that threatens not only their existence, but virtually all marine life in the region — including the vaquita.
The docu tracks scientists, high-tech conservationists, investigative journalists, undercover agents and the Mexican Navy put their lives on the line to save the last remaining vaquita and bring the crime syndicate to justice.
Screenings have taken place for the Mexican Senate, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the United Nations' headquarters in New York, Geneva and Vienna among other venues.
“The response to the film from audiences around the world at festivals and screenings has been amazing, and I’m so thrilled that it will be airing globally on National Geographic and exposing new viewers to the plight the vaquita and the shadowy factions that are destroying all marine life in the Sea of Cortez,” Ladkani said. “My goal as a director is to try to have a lasting impact on our world by focusing on issues that threaten our natural environment, and I hope the film shows viewers how incredibly urgent and symbolic this issue is, but also imparts a sense of hope, that this precious ecosystem can be saved from total collapse. Our planet is under attack, but I believe each one of us has the ability to become part of the solution.”
National Geographic Documentary Films’ recent releases include the Oscar-winning Free Solo, Toronto Film Festival audience award winner The Cave and the Sundance buzz title Science Fair.
Sea of Shadows doesn’t play out like a typical conservation documentary. Austrian director Richard Ladkani says he realized halfway through shooting that it was a thriller and tried to construct it that way, and it’s not much of a stretch to compare it to Sicario or Traffic. Think The Cove meets Sicario, to put it in Hollywood shorthand terms.
While Sea of Shadows is ostensibly about the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale and one of its most endangered species, with a population currently estimated at 15 or less, there are times in the film that the animals themselves are overshadowed by the sheer ballsiness of the filmmakers and some of the environmentalists and journalists trying to save them.
Lots of environmental activism is aspirational, examples of ways we could imagine ourselves making a difference if we were better, braver, more compassionate people. All I could think watching Sea of Shadows was, “Oh God I would never do this.”
It’s one thing to take on Japanese whaling ships as the crew of the Sea Shepherd, featured prominently in Sea of Shadows and previously seen on Whale Wars so often do or even ivory poachers as in director Richard Ladkani’s previous film, The Ivory Game, for Netflix, but in Sea of Shadows, the main adversary is Mexican drug cartels. Who, as Ladkani puts it, “Don’t fuss around. They just kill you if they don’t like you.”
The cartels have turned sale of the swim bladder from the totoaba, the “cocaine of the sea” prized in China for its supposed medicinal properties, into a lucrative trade with Chinese brokers a process during which the vaquita is merely an unintended bycatch. The cartels seem to have been able to buy protection at the highest levels of Mexican law enforcement and the military, and yet you have Ladkani and his crew trying to infiltrate their gangs just to get the word out, and Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola going on Mexican TV with his face uncovered in an attempt to do same. This is in the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists. It’s a level of commitment that’s admirable even as its mystifying.
Another aspect that elevates Sea of Shadows as a film which won an audience award for best documentary at Sundance, along with a handful of other festivals is that Ladkani doesn’t soft-peddle what it takes to wage a fight like this and how hopeless it can feel. Especially when conservationists raise millions for a rescue effort that turns out to be a disaster, or when poorly executed conservation policy seems to achieve nothing but putting legal fisherman out of work and sour the public on environmentalists. To Ladkani though, that’s just part of the challenge for a fight that’s worth waging. It’s one he’s still fighting.
With Sea of Shadows opening in a handful of cities this past week New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, I spoke to Ladkani by phone.