'Watson': Film Review

Watson-Publicity Still-H 2019
Tribeca Film Festival
A life aquatic.

Ecological activist Paul Watson headlines this beautifully filmed, very distressing documentary.

We almost all have an experience that shaped us, and the course of our lives, in irrevocable ways. In the case of the Canadian-born eco-activist Paul Watson, that occurrence was especially harrowing and impactful. As a child, he was playing near the water. His friends tied him to a semi-sunken piece of wood a little ways from shore. They left him there. Soon the tide began to rise and the young Watson was certain he was going to drown. He was eventually rescued, but not before the fear of his own death was effectively eradicated.

Watson tells this story early in the documentary (directed by Lesley Chilcott) that's named after him. He has the steely look of a religious convert whose belief system is entirely devoid of concern for his own well-being. It's at once admirable and off-putting, since there also seems to be some crucial part of his humanity missing. But this intrepid quality is also what has allowed him to be such an effective fighter for the sea creatures and the briny habitats he has spent decades trying to protect.

Chilcott takes us through Watson's life more or less chronologically, from his days as a founding Greenpeace member (he turned his back on the organization because he found their nonviolent methods ineffective) to his current status — not fully by choice — as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's emeritus radical. Archive footage from the late-'60s/early-'70s shows the teenage-to-20-something Watson in the hazardous situations that would become a staple of his existence. An image of him standing atop the corpse of an illegally harpooned whale typifies his astoundingly dauntless mind-set. The ocean is roiling all around Watson, but he might as well be waiting in line at the grocery store.

There's all this footage of his exploits because Watson learned early on that media can be used as both shield and weapon. (Unsurprisingly, he cites Marshall McLuhan as a prime influence.) Watson films his expeditions — many of them involving direct, hull-crushing action against unlawful whaling and fishing boats — from all possible angles, ensuring that he has some level of legal protection, along with a treasure trove of imagery to stoke the fury of a populace who might otherwise look the other way.

Chilcott contrasts these often grainy visuals (the sight of sharks having their fins and tails sliced off, then dumped back in the water to die writhing on the ocean floor, is especially upsetting) with some gorgeous high-res photography of whales and coral reefs that would fit easily into the creation-of-Earth sequence from Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Seeing the majesty of these creatures and their habitat up close makes for a flustering incongruity with the footage that Watson and his crew have captured of their despoiling.

His commitment to documenting and impeding the unauthorized plunder of the oceans (though there is, of course, plenty of clandestine government sanction of these activities) is exemplary. Chilcott also explores, a bit too minimally, the sacrifices her subject has had to make to fully follow his calling. There are glancing mentions of Watson's multiple marriages and spotty record as a father, though his present-day life as a militant mostly consigned to captaining via FaceTime has allowed him to bridge some of the familial and romantic gaps. It's still evident what Watson's heart aches for most, and it isn't for anyone or anything bipedal.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Director: Lesley Chilcott
Producers: Louise Runge, Lesley Chilcott, Wolfgang Knöpfler
Cinematographer: Logan Schneider
Editor: Greg Finton
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Elise Pearlstein, Walter Köhler, Dinah Czezik-Müller
Composer: Christophe Beck
U.S. sales: Submarine
International sales: Participant Media

99 minutes