Documentary Releases: Sea of Shadows (2019) - Reviewed

Roughly three years ago, cinematographer/documentary filmmaker Richard Ladkani teamed up with Netflix to make the wildlife documentary film The Ivory Game which presented activists fighting off poachers to quell illegal ivory trade in Africa.  Now with the help of National Geographic, Ladkani has redirected his focus upon the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, in Sea of Shadows, where the cartel and illegal trade of totoaba fish threatens the existence of the endangered species of porpoise, the Vaquita.  With as few as fifteen vaquita left swimming in the world, a team of scientists, conservationists and the Mexican navy work tirelessly to try and deter the illegal totoaba fishing while exposing deeply ingrained corruption within the Mexican police force and the military. 

Reteaming with executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio, Ladkani and his two co-directors Sean Bogle and Matthew Podolsky have fashioned a tense documentary saturated in implacable danger as the efforts to thwart the poachers amid police corruption proves far more difficult than meets the eye.  Photographed in panoramic widescreen by Ladkani, Sea of Shadows presents a criminal operation spanning the globe going all the way back to China.  Meanwhile efforts are undertaken to try and provide a sanctuary for the rarely glimpsed vaquita who until this documentary haven’t been recorded on film before.

Partially an undercover crime investigation thriller, partially a nature documentary highlighting a next to unknown species of porpoise, Sea of Shadows frequently alternates between the two disparate subjects while also leaving ample room for opposing argument from legitimate fisherman who have taken a heavy blow with the ban on illegal gillnets.  Some of the tensest moments are shot entirely in night vision with some unexpected and dangerous encounters with poachers seeking violent confrontation.  There’s also a wealth of drone photography tailing the poachers who at one point shoot down a hovering drone. 

Sea of Shadows will fill many with righteous indignation as an openly violent crime syndicate threatens the survival of a species of porpoise for all time, all the while highlighting the tensions that come with policing an ocean of illegal poaching.  Others will also come away frustrated the film doesn’t offer much of a solution to the overarching problem and a heartbreaking encounter with a vaquita begs the question whether or not the conservation efforts are more harmful than helpful.  As it stands, the film concerns a section of the world involving the exploitation/protection of a species I knew nothing about previously.  In the end, Sea of Shadows is a strong documentary that will make you think twice about the fragility of the world we live in.

--Andrew Kotwicki