Divisive animal-rights activist Paul Watson gets sympathetic treatment from Trish Dolman in “Eco-Pirate,” though the helmer doesn’t shy away from exposing the man’s unpleasant sides. Result is a handsomely made, even exciting docu encompassing the subject’s evolution from Greenpeace warrior to go-it-alone pirate, expert at manipulating the media and wooing celebs to the cause of whales, seals and dolphins. Dolman presents the polemics surrounding Watson’s unconventional style, yet she’s also an admirer whose film is certain to attract devotees to the cause. Once fest exposure has run its course, smallscreen play is assured.
Watson’s gonzo approach to environmentalism manifests itself in his much-publicized Sea Shepherd expeditions (the subject of Animal Planet’s highly successful “Whale Wars” series), when he and his crew hunt for whaling vessels and ram them with their specially rigged prow, sporting steel projections he calls “the mother of all can openers.” Such tactics earn him the ire of more staid animal-rights groups such as Greenpeace, but Watson’s argument is that they merely protest, while he does what it takes to end unwanted actions.
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Such enmity springs not just from a difference in philosophy but also from decades of bad blood. Dolman traces the history of Greenpeace from its roots in the anti-Vietnam War counterculture movement of the early 1970s, when Watson was one of its founding members. Recklessness and a talent for self-promotion — Watson is nothing if not a publicity hound — led to an acrimonious parting of the ways, still shrouded in “he said, he said” accusations. (There appear to be few female leaders in either Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd, and certainly Watson’s ways encourage acolytes more than they do partners, either for business or pleasure.)
“Eco-Pirate” follows Watson’s team to Antarctica in search of Japanese whaling vessels, providing a frame for Dolman to shuttle back and forth in time, touching on earlier incidents as well as her subject’s problematic personal life; as with so many animal-rights activists,Watson’s interpersonal relationships leave a lot to be desired. The docu makes terrific use of a wealth of archival footage and photos, and the scenes of Watson and crew chasing after the whalers are thrillingly lensed, accompanied by the Sea Shepherd’s m.o. of blaring Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as they give chase.
Old footage of seals being clubbed is difficult to watch: Though these are the images that helped put Greenpeace on the map, their inclusion here is overly calculated to generate additional support for Watson’s work. Closeups of Watson typing his books are an obvious re-enactment and feel awfully cheesy.