'Huntwatch': Film Review

Huntwatch - Still - H - 2016
© IFAW/S. Cook
This disturbing documentary isn't easy to watch.

Brant Backlund's documentary, narrated by Ryan Reynolds, chronicles the decades-long efforts to stop the slaughter of baby seals.

Brant Backlund's documentary Huntwatch is a textbook example of a hard film to watch. Chronicling the decades-long controversy over the killing of baby seals off the coast of Newfoundland, it features heartbreaking and horrific images that sear indelibly into your brain. The fiercely agitprop documentary, narrated by Ryan Reynolds, is receiving a brief theatrical release before airing on the Discovery Channel.

The film's central figures are Brian Davies, who first witnessed the killings of harp seals in 1965 and who made it his life's mission to end it by founding the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW); and Sheryl Fink, who's taken up the mantle with the activist group Huntwatch.

Footage spanning several decades follows sealers going about their deadly business, often skinning the animals alive and leaving a trail of ice floes covered in blood. One of the most poignant clips shows a seal desperately trying to follow the carcass of her slaughtered pup as it's being dragged away. Even some of the sealers — who are generally fishermen supplementing their income — have qualms about what they're doing. Davies recalls witnessing one sealer clubbing a baby seal to death and then sadly telling him, "There are some things a man should never do."

The IFAW brought publicity to the practice, which takes place for only several days a year, soon after the seals have given birth. The irony was that the footage was often deemed too gruesome for mainstream media. IFAW members also escorted visitors to the area, including actress/animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot, and a group of female flight attendants. The camera dwells on their horrified expressions.   

About the latter stunt, an unapologetic Davies comments, "Some people thought it was tacky."

Driving the slaughter was a demand for seal skins. Most were made into fur coats, but the film includes a number of other uses: mittens: toys, even Christmas ornaments. For many years, adult seal penises were sold to Chinese consumers as an aphrodisiac.

The activists eventually shifted tactics and concentrated on eliminating the market for these and other seal products. They also promoted tourism in the area, giving visitors the thrill of being in close proximity to the lovable animals. For a while, sealing declined, especially when Canada banned the killing of newborn harp seals, known as whitecoats. But the practice eventually returned with a vengeance, only falling off when Europe, one of the primary markets, instituted a ban on seal products.

The filmmakers give sealers and their supporters the opportunity to defend the practice. A furrier points out that if he doesn't make coats from seal skins, someone else will. But such arguments are unlikely to sway anyone witnessing this film's footage of adorable, harmless creatures being ruthlessly slaughtered.  

Production companies: International Fund for Animal Welfare, Discovery Channel
Narrator: Ryan Reynolds
Director-screenwriter: Brant Backlund
Producers: Kerry Branon, David Kennedy, Richard Moos
Executive producers: Azzedine Downes, Erica Martin, Shawna Moos
Director of photography: Richard Moos
Editors: Brant Backlund, David Kennedy

Not rated, 88 minutes