Sea of Shadows




Concern over an environmental issue becomes an investigation into crime and corruption.

Sea of Shadows


More than one compelling issue lies at the heart of this passionate documentary about what is happening now in the Sea of Cortez in the Gulf of Mexico. Richard Ladkani’s film which he photographed himself was wisely shot in ‘Scope, a medium well suited to the frequent seascapes that feature in this environmentally concerned piece. In that respect the main focus is on the threatened extinction of the vaquita. This species, by far the smallest of the whale family, is centred in this area and an initial indication that less than thirty of them are left is reduced to fifteen in the written statements that close the film.


The dire plight of the vaquita is due to nets put out to catch another fish, the totoaba, and this means that Sea of Shadows is equally concerned with exposing in detail a criminal endeavour that could be fatal to this sea. In China it is believed, quite possibly erroneously, that the swim bladder of the totoaba has an extremely strong ability to heal and in consequence dealing in it is as profitable as the trade in cocaine. Consequently, this has become a major source of criminal activity set up by the Chinese and involving local cartels that employ Mexican fishermen to catch the totoaba illegally using those very nets which also endanger the vaquita.


The situation that has developed has prompted action by environmental bodies such as the Earth League International and we meet the crew of a Sea Shepherd ship stationed in this area to cut as many of these nets as possible. Other preservationists seen here are those setting out to locate and transfer the vaquita to sanctuaries but, while this scheme has approval from the Mexican government, it soon becomes clear that the fish are not surviving the process. Meanwhile the issues have attracted the attention of investigative journalists and the film shows how step by step they uncover evidence of corruption among the authorities in Mexico from the government down. This explains how it is that the trade with China continues to flourish and in consequence Sea of Shadows is a work that is as much a portrayal of a criminal investigation as it is a plea not to destroy the environment.


This is undoubtedly an interesting film and one that did not really need such a prominent music score to underline its inherent drama. However, its worst fault - one that mainly features in the film’s early stages - lies in the inconsiderate way that it fails to give enough time for the viewer to take everything on board. At the very start a description of the location vies for our attention against subtitles translating words being spoken after which a desire to move quickly on the part of the filmmakers means that on several occasions there is not enough time to read the name and description of some newcomer seen on the screen and to take in what they are saying as well. This is all the more infuriating because it could so easily have been rectified. Nevertheless, this is a documentary with definite dramatic power and strong subject matter - it even extends to revealing that the fishermen of San Felipe are themselves divided as some honourably deplore what has been going on while others are all too ready to support the illegal activity which in passing has given them a living in hard times.




Featuring  Andrea Crosta, Carlos Loret de Mola, Ana-Lucia Hernández Sánchez, Cynthia Smith, Jack Hutton, Hector Capetillo, Marc Davis, Javier Valverde, Alan Valverde.


Dir Richard Ladkani with Matthew Podolsky and Sean Bogle, Pro Walter Köhler and Wolgang Knöpfler, Ph Richard Ladkani, Ed George Michael Fischer and Verena Schönauer, Music H.Scott Salinas.


National Geographic Documentary Films/Terra Mater Factual Studios/Appian Way/Malaika Pictures/The Wide Lens Collective-Dogwoof.
105 mins. Austria/USA/Germany/Australia. 2019. Rel: 27 September 2019. Cert. 12A.