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Paul Watson, founder of the direct-action Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is no stranger to cameras. His aggressive campaigns to defend whales and disable the illegal whaling industry have been documented in a number of films, and his group’s tactical expeditions are the subject of the reality series Whale Wars, which is scheduled for a sixth season on Animal Planet.
Add to the biographical record the feature-length documentary Eco-Pirate, a selection of the new season of Epix Docs. Writer-directorTrish Dolman has gathered insightful talking-head testimony from Watson and his colleagues past and present, admirers and detractors among them. The result is a spirited thumbnail overview of key factions of the modern environmental movement, and a complex portrait of a man who has been a leading activist for more than 40 years. Some call him a terrorist; others — including Martin Sheen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis — consider him a hero.
Watson was instrumental in the early activities of Greenpeace, until his ouster from the board in 1977. Author Rex Weyler, an original director of Greenpeace, points out that ego clashes played a role in his expulsion, along with the power plays that are endemic to group dynamics. At the same time, crucial differences in philosophy and methods made the split inevitable.
For Watson, a sailor and former journalist, Greenpeace’s Quaker-based focus on nonviolent protest is tantamount to cowardice. His affinity for the tradition of monkeywrenching was evident long before his Sea Shepherd crews set out to sabotage ships that are whaling, in defiance of international regulations, under the guise of research. The documentary’s well-chosen archival footage — some of it tough viewing for animal lovers — demonstrates his willingness to put the lives of animals above his own safety. If he could pull a club from the hands of a seal hunter, he did so, to the chagrin of Greenpeace’s leadership.
Another distinction that put Watson at odds with other environmentalists was his instinctive understanding of the importance of PR, with an emphasis on celebrities. What he calls a triumph — Brigitte Bardot’s highly publicized presence at an action against seal hunting — another key Greenpeace figure of the period, Patrick Moore, terms a fiasco.
A strength of Dolman’s film is its refusal to downplay Watson’s more paradoxical, and potentially less likable, qualities. Any relationship (he’s been married three times) is secondary to his work. Some observers note the narcissism and cult of personality that power Sea Shepherd; they’re not complaining. A father figure to many of his young followers but not necessarily to his daughter, he’s charismatic without being warm.
But Watson’s passion is evident as he faces off against Japanese whaling vessels. In extraordinary footage of the organization’s Antarctic operations, amid the ice floes and roiling seas, he’s a modern-day version of Ahab, one who’s on the side of the whale.
Production companies: A Screen Siren Pictures production in association with Telefilm Canada
With: Paul Watson, Patrick Moore, Rex Weyler, Farley Mowat, Emily Hunter, David Suzuki, Anthony Kiedis, Martin Sheen
Writer-director: Trish Dolman
Producers: Trish Dolman, Kevin Eastwood
Cameras: Goran Basaric, Todd Craddock, Steven Deneault, Emily Hunter, Paul Kell, Murray Milne, Kristian Olsen
Music: Michael Brook
Editor: Brendan Woollard
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