It’s a decidedly grim circle of life that moves us all in “Sea of Shadows,” a tight, troubling documentary eco-thriller that charts a compelling course of consequence from Chinese black-market apothecaries to the near-extinction of a rare whale in the Sea of Cortez, hitting on Mexican crime cartels and institutional corruption along the way. Austrian director-cinematographer Richard Ladkani has form in this field, having previously co-helmed Netflix’s urgent anti-poaching doc “The Ivory Game,” and once more brings sturdy conventional craftsmanship and boots-on-the-ground engagement to an environmentally conscious, unabashedly heart-grabbing exposé. With its clear crowd-pleasing credentials confirmed by an audience award win at Sundance, “Sea of Shadows” will sail through the festival circuit; in an ideal match of sensibilities, National Geographic has secured worldwide rights.
Louie Psihoyos’s 2009 Oscar-winner “The Cove” provides the most obvious commercial precedent for “Sea of Shadows,” though Ladkani’s film is something of a shape-shifter, its startling story expanding into unexpected areas as it darts between land and sea, with the big blue at the mercy of inland misdeeds. At times, it seems to be two different films entirely — one, a gritty probe into the dark heart of a Baja California crime syndicate, the other an emotion-drenched study of a marine life rescue mission — that wouldn’t necessarily gel if not for the fact that tragic reality has inextricably yoked them together. Told with straightforward investigative nous and a judicious teardrop of anguished sentimentality, the film makes a virtue of its many clashing participants: journalists, scientists, activists, navy officials and fishermen, each with a slightly different stance on the matter.
At the heart of all this buzzing, impassioned human activity, meanwhile, are two endangered species from the deep, one an accidental casualty of the other’s active targeting. For bands of poachers in the Gulf of California, the totoaba fish is swimming, slippery gold: the creature’s swim bladder, once extracted and dried, is highly prized as a health and cosmetic product in China and Hong Kong, where it sells on the black market for amounts exorbitant enough to earn the label “aquatic cocaine.” Numbers are consequently dropping for the species, though not as drastically as they are for the vaquita porpoise, of which only 15 are said to remain in our waters, having been decimated by the illegal gillnets used to easily gather totoaba.
Working nimbly as his own cameraman, Ladkani climbs aboard with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society crew as they cruise the Sea of Cortez to remove these nets one by one — dredging up a devastating amount of suffocated sea life in the process — and getting tensely caught in the fray with the circling boats of agitated poachers. We also spend significant time at sea with a group of marine biologists on a quest to capture, protect and preserve the few remaining vaquitas; initially presented as the film’s feelgood narrative, it takes a more emotionally testing tone as the project runs into complications. A wrenching extended scene involving an ailing vaquita in captivity plays out like the anti-“Free Willy,” though its ensemble of achingly invested human aides leaves us with at least some faith in our own species.
On dry land, meanwhile, Ladkani must thread together several different lines of enquiry, as he questions the Mexican navy’s degree of complicity in the crisis, follows undercover investigators into the underworld dealings of feared “Totoaba Tzar” Oscar Parra, and tracks the growing discontent of local fishermen incensed that environmental restrictions are impinging on their already modest livelihood. Prominent Mexican news anchor Carlos Loret de Mora and leading conservationist Andrea Crosta — a familiar face from Ladkani’s last film, as the director of the Elephant Action League — serve as guiding onscreen allies to proceedings.
This is a lot of business to juggle, but editors Georg Michael Fischer and Verena Schönauer keep the film’s slick, well-shot assemblage of action footage and occasional talking-head commentary smooth and pacy — while also knowing the right spots at which to linger and let the viewer’s vicarious fear and fury come to a head. (Music use is brisk and effective, if not notably inspired.) With apologies to the film’s distributor, Ladkani aptly resists the temptation to wallow in gorgeous, National Geographic-style underwater spectacle in a body of water so rich in marine life that Jacques Cousteau dubbed it “the aquarium of the planet.” We’re shown just enough of its riches to make us swoon, just rarely enough to remind us that it’s slipping through our greedy landlubber fingers.