“Save the whales” only begins to explain Sea of Shadows, directed by Richard Ladkani. The vaquita, the planet’s smallest species of whale, is near extinction. This process is accelerated by nets designed to capture an entirely different animal: the totoaba. The bladder of the totoaba is believed to have special healing properties by the Chinese, which has it going for as high as $100,000 on the black market. Due to the high number of vaquita being caught in the crossfire between the fishermen with dollar signs in their eyes and the increasingly rare totoaba, the Mexican government has declared the capture of both species illegal.
But as we all know, when the government makes something illegal, they simply create a new breed of criminal or expand the reach of existing breeds. Like clockwork, the cartels moved in and made the trafficking of totoaba bladders a lucrative part of their business. It’s so lucrative that one subject in the film refers to the totoaba bladder as the “cocaine of the sea.” This is an apt comparison, for the Mexican government appears to be just as gutless and corrupt with the cartels on bladders as they are with drugs.
“It’s so lucrative that one subject in the film refers to the totoaba bladder as the ‘cocaine of the sea.’”
That’s a lot to take in and quite the escalation from what appears on the surface to be a simple environmental issue. Thankfully, the movie efficiently relates this information in a way that doesn’t feel like someone dropping a heavy stack of manila folders on your desk. Instead, it alternates between the boots on the water, so to speak, and a journalist who is actively following the breadcrumbs of the bladder ring—again, so to speak. The former provides the pathos of the film, giving us Paul Greengrass-esque excitement and Old Yeller-esque heartbreak. The latter provides the ethos of the film, giving us a fired-up journalist who asks the tough questions and a fair share of modulated voices.
It’s the investigative portion of the movie that is most engaging, if only for the absurdity of fish bladders causing so much mayhem, including the cold-blooded murder of a marine with an AK-47. The other part of the movie, which involves the people in boats who patrol the waters and save the whales from nets (a conservation society called Sea Shepard), is mildly interesting and gives a proverbial face to the vaquita/totoaba conundrum, but never quite earns its hefty amount of screen-time. A little pathos goes a long way; too much can become intellectually numbing.
“…a documentary’s success is just pointing your cameras in the right direction.”
If 80% of success is just showing up, then a similar percentage of a documentary’s success is just pointing your cameras in the right direction. While talented filmmakers can point their camera anywhere and make it interesting, it helps to point your cameras in the direction of a crime ring that reaches from Mexico to China, has its hands in the pockets of the government, and is entirely based on fish bladders.
Sea of Shadows (2019) Directed by Richard Ladkani. Starring Jack Hutton, Carlos Loret de Mola, Andrea Crosta, Javier Valverde, Alan Valverde, Cynthia Smith.
6 out of 10 stars