Now Playing: 'Sea of Shadows,' Documentary Thriller on Desperate Attempt to Save Precious Vaquita Whale
Richard Ladkani's fast-paced film unfolds like nonfiction answer to Sicario
The most exciting action movie this summer may not be a big Hollywood production, but a documentary.
Sea of Shadows, directed by Richard Ladkani, pulses with ocean chase scenes, beach-side riots, violent Mexican drug cartels, nefarious Chinese traffickers, dangerous undercover operations and a band of heroes dedicated to saving a creature in terrible distress.
"We felt like we were doing the true Sicario, in a way," Ladkani tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "We were there for real, risking a lot to get the story told and it was like being immersed in this strange world that you only see in a Hollywood film."
This is organized crime attacking our planet for money and greed and we need to stop it.
The 'strange world' of Sea of Shadows is Baja California and the Sea of Cortez, where the endangered vaquita whale - a cetacean that looks like a cross between a panda and a porpoise - has been driven to near extinction. It's a victim of circumstance - Mexican cartels string deadly nets across the sea to trap a different species - the totoaba fish - but in the process they're killing turtles, whales, dolphins, birds, and almost every last one of the vaquita.
The totoaba is prized in traditional Chinese medicine for its swim bladder. Poachers cut out the bladders and sell them to Chinese crime syndicates who smuggle them into Hong Kong and Southern China.
"The totoaba [swim bladder], it's actually a product for rich people in China, because you buy the whole thing... We're talking $20-, $30-, $40-, $50,000 dollars, up to $100,000 dollars [each]," explains Andrea Crosta, a key subject of the film who is co-founder of the conservation group Earth League International. "The Chinese traffickers, they actually are the enabler, they actually fuel the demand, in my opinion, even more than consumers. They make sure that you find totoaba available if you want [it]... That's why it's very important to hit them."
Sea of Shadows is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and expands to Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Washington DC, Miami, Philadelphia and many other cities in the coming days and weeks. Details here.
Sea of Shadows shows Crosta, who has a background in intelligence, as he attempts to infiltrate Chinese traffickers operating in Tijuana and gather evidence against them. Among the other main characters in the film is crusading Mexican journalist and TV host Carlos Loret de Mola, who has attempted to shame the Mexican government into taking action to protect the vaquita.
"I cannot believe that a country like Mexico with so many resources - being the 15th largest economy in the world - hasn't been able to solve this problem," Loret de Mola told me Wednesday night at the Los Angeles premiere of Sea of Shadows. "The government can [win acclaim] for itself if they do something, but they haven't."
Loret de Mola's reporting on the vaquita has put his own life at risk.
"He already got a lot of death threats about two months ago," Ladkani comments. "It really stepped up because he's pushing the topic. We'll just watch out, be careful... We're telling a good story - good against evil - but we just want good to prevail."
Another of the film's characters who stands firmly on the side of the vaquita is Jack Hutton, a skilled drone operator aboard a Sea Shepherd ocean conservation vessel, which patrols the Sea of Cortez pulling the deadly nets from the water.
Some of the most dramatic sequences in Sea of Shadows involve Hutton and the crew tangling with poacher boats. In one scene, poachers pull out weapons and start blasting away at Hutton's drone. And there are action-packed nighttime pursuits as the Mexican navy, alerted by the Sea Shepherd to illegal fishing activity, crash over the waves in pursuit of the poachers.
"Since Sundance [where the film premiered in January] the ship has been attacked five times. We've been boarded [by poachers], we've had molotov cocktails hit the side. We've had up to 30 boats come out and smash our windows in. Our equipment has been stolen," Hutton tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "We're getting as many nets as we always have... My every day is pulling a net out of the ocean, cutting animals out of that net, getting chased by poachers, doing drones activity... that's every single day there. It's a very intense campaign."
The most endearing star of the film is the vaquita itself, a marine mammal that measures under 5-feet in length. It peers through the sea through eyes lined with a dark ring, and a mouth similarly lined in a dark shade that gives the appearance of a perpetual smile. Researcher and conservationist Dr. Cynthia Smith appears in the documentary as part of a scientific team endeavoring to protect the vaquita, and indeed the larger marine habitat.
"There's so many reasons that we should try to reverse the problems that are unfolding in the Sea of Cortez," she urges. "We have to recognize that the vaquita symbolizes something so precious and so worthy of saving that it moves us all to create change and to do something different and to decide that we're not going to continue to live in a way that's suffocating our ocean and our planet. Really, we just have to decide to do better."
The director and his subjects insist the vaquita can be rescued from the brink of extinction - if concrete steps are taken immediately.
'It's quite simple what we're asking: that is, go after the Chinese. If you go after the Chinese traffickers in Tijuana the price [of totoaba swim bladders] will collapse. If you don't have the buyers the cartel won't be able to sell. Then you don't have a market, and then problem solved," Ladkani maintains. "So do that. Don't forget about the community, the fishermen; they need compensation money. They need solutions to go back out to fishing [instead of poaching]."
Ladkani, adds, "We want zero tolerance [for poachers] in the vaquita refuge. It's only 400 square miles. It's very easy to patrol this area and to push out any illegal fishing vessel. They [the government] are not doing that because they don't care. So start caring."
Crosta says he recently supplied updated intelligence information to the Mexican government and met with the country's top law enforcement agency, which he said is primed for action.
"They're the real deal, the badasses," he notes. "They really want to do it, but you need some kind of presidential [order], 'Okay, go.'"
To find out what you can do to help save the vaquita, National Geographic has launched an impact campaign in connection with Sea of Shadows. It includes a Change.org petition that urges the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the country's Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Víctor Manuel Toledo, to take immediate action on behalf of the endangered marine animal. Click here for more info.
Among those fully on board with the campaign are renowned conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall, a mentor to director Richard Ladkani, and Leonardo DiCaprio, executive producer of Sea of Shadows. DiCaprio, an ardent environmentalist, played a key role launching the project.
"He [DiCaprio] said, 'I deeply care about the vaquita and would you be interested in doing a movie about it because it's on the brink of extinction and I think a movie can help?'" Ladkani recalls. "He said, 'I'm going to give you [my] name but more than that I'll communicate to the world that this [vaquita] exists. I will promote the film.' He was involved in the vaquita rescue operation from the get-go."
For Ladkani, the moral question is clear: "This is organized crime attacking our planet for money and greed and we need to stop it."
Leave a mark instead of a scar on the planet.
I asked Hutton and Dr. Smith how they would define success for the Sea of Shadows documentary.
"Success, to me," Dr. Smith replied, "is a thriving, alive, beautiful Sea of Cortez where there are no nets drowning animals and where vaquitas are rebounding and we're looking back saying, 'Thank god that we all had that realization at the same time and we actually did something to change the situation and to change the course of history and look at what we can accomplish.'"
"I hope this film continues to push people towards a realization that we cannot live like this anymore," Hutton stated. "We cannot live in this consumerist 'use and throw away, consume unsustainable products' fashion anymore. And I hope... we can just keep pushing people to make that change and to leave a mark instead of a scar on the planet."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.