National Geographic hosted the screening of ‘Sea of Shadows’ as part of AFI Docs Festival in June. The film won the Audience Award at Sundance, and has screened at the United Nations, both in USA, and its headquarters in Switzerland. Photo provided by Instagram

            Needlessly to say, Sea of Shadows is the most thrilling, insightful and needed film in a long while. It is grim, gripping, and a call to arms to save an endangered species, as well as to curb drug cartels in Mexico.

            For starters, it should be noted that Sea of Shadows was executive produced by Appian Way  – which means that Leonardo DiCaprio – an ardent supporter of environmental causes to be sure, heavily financed the picture. 

            As for the convoluted plot, let’s just say it’s got virtually everything in a thriller: edginess, compassion, brains, and is bravely shot picture by its director Richard Ladkani, who also serves as its cinematographer. Ladkani has already built a solid reputation for making timely documentaries. His previous films include “Escape over the Himalayas,” “The Devil’s Miner,” “Jane’s Journey,” “Vatcan – The Hidden World,” and “Gas Monopoly” which garnered him a number of awards at prestigious film festivals around the world. He also directed “The Ivory Game,” a Netflix Original that was also executive produced by DiCaprio’s Appian Way. In recent years, Ladkani’s Malaika Pictures is a company he began with his wife, in an effort to spotlight topical issues.                                             

            “Ten years ago, I spent a full year with (anthropologist) Jane Goodall when I shot a film with her called ‘Jane’s Journey’ – and it was this year that changed everything,” Ladkani told the audience after the screening. “[Goodall] was a big inspiration on my life. She told me, ‘you have the power to make movies. And to make a difference, it has to start tomorrow. So why don’t you choose topics people should know about, and care about?’ So it was this seed that was put into my mind.” 

            Sea of Shadows is largely set in the Sea of Cortez – as marine explorer Jacques Cousteau dubbed “the world’s aquarium” – which sadly brings in illegal fishermen, and Mexican cartels, all of whom discover the potentially lucrative fish called the totoaba. The director often employs aerial drone-photography. As the film shows, various cartels ravage the ecosystem, and set up traps for the Earth’s smallest whale, the vaquita, a mammal on the endangered species list. From the outset, Sea of Shadows blends in undercover investigators, environmentalists, journalists, and even the the Mexican navy in their last attempts to rescue the vaquita from extinction and uncover this expansive market ring. 

            The totoaba bladder can fetch as much as $100,000; some environmentalists liken it to the elephant tusk, which remain high on the international black market. Since it is largely dangerous investigative work, many of the subjects interviewed in the film must have their voices disguised, and their faces heavily pixelated. The camera-drone photography employed is indeed stylistically a tour-de-force by its director.

            Another aspect of the narrative deals with the VaquitaCPR, an organization led by marine veterinarian Cynthia Smith. It is an international program seeking to track down the remaining vaquitas and house them in protected sea pens until their habitat is deemed gill-net free and safe. Unfortunately, as the film shows in real time, their noble pursuit may interfere with the course of nature, since vaquitas do not always want to be rescued as it may confuse their normal routine in its habitat.

            In one gripping scene, Smith and her crew are thrust into action in hopes of saving the rare vaquita.  That sense of urgency was conveyed in the discussion after the film. “Because the number of vaquitas left in the Sea of Cortez is so low, it’s going to take a coordinated, joint effort between the Mexican government, scientists, and non-governmental organizations all working together to save the species,” Smith said. “Even though the population is very small, as scientists we know that, genetically-speaking, it is still possible for the vaquita to rebuild its numbers and make a comeback.”

            The other protagonist in the film is Andrea Crosta, the executive director and co-founder of Earth League International. He is also cofounder of the Elephant Action League and the WildLeaks project in Los Angeles. In recent years, he carried out two successful investigations in China on ivory and rhino horn trafficking. His presence in the film is most memorable, particularly when he denounced on live TV the nefarious role of Chinese traffickers of the illegal trade of the totoaba. Sea of Shadows often depicts Crosta putting his life on the line in an effort to stop the use of the illegal gill-nets, and curtailing traffickers. His collected intelligence often results in consulting with ex-FBI and CIA officials, which could result in needed arrests. The film shows Crosta’s painstaking work: collecting intelligence along the entire illegal supply chain from all points between Mexico and China.

            So how did Crosta get involved in such a dangerous profession?

            “Earth Link works in concert with high end technology and intelligence,” Crosta explained after the screening.  “The marriage happened because I had two professional careers. It’s important to have an organization like Earth Link International because we have problems like with the vaquita (an endangered species). Environmental consequences (have) social consequences. They have to be approached like a crime, and by crime professionals. When you deal with these kind of criminals, you have to try to hit the right spot, with the right person, and collecting information.”

            Sea of Shadows is brought to the screen with cinematic intensity, dedication and flair. The film will not just win audience awards at festivals – as it did at Sundance – but it will force governments to change policy and curb environmental injustice. “We’re very strong on the impact (of the film),” added Ladkani. “We want this film to be seen in Mexico, and around the world, and to push the government into action. It’s a new government and we realized that (after) they pulled the release, (people were) trying to respond to our movie ever since. So we are using this movie as a very powerful tool for change, and it’s working already.”