I saw director Richard Ladkani’s gripping investigative documentary Sea of Shadows at the 2019 AFI DOCS, and though I couldn’t interview him there, I was just recently able to talk to him on the phone (Film Festival Today founder Jeremy Taylor reviewed the film after Sundance). The movie, which just opened in select theaters, is both a powerful call to action, profiling the dire state of the almost-extinct vaquita – a porpoise native to the Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California) – and a thrilling (and dangerous) examination of black-market actors in Mexico and China. The vaquita, you see, dies in the illegal “ghost nets” put out to catch the totoaba fish, whose bladders are coveted by some adherents of traditional Chinese medicine. Though parts of the film can be difficult to watch, as humanity’s role in the destruction of our planet’s ecosystem is horrific, Ladkani expertly keeps the story moving from plot point to plot point, touching upon misery but never dwelling on it beyond what we can stomach. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed: How did you find out about this particular story?
Richard Ladkani: It actually happened right after I completed The Ivory Game, my last movie, on the extinction of elephants, when one of the main characters of the film, Andrea Crosta, told me about this investigation that he was doing in Mexico about these two animals, the totoaba and the vaquita, and the illegal trade. I basically stopped him right there and asked, “Could you please repeat that? Totoaba, what is that?” I’d never heard about those animals.
Back then, I thought that could never be a movie, because this is about two animals nobody’s ever heard about. It’s a very big risk to do a big film on something that nobody may go and see because they just don’t care about it. Then I looked at it a bit closer, and realized this is a very symbolic story, because this is about what is happening with our planet. When you have organized crime conspiring against planet Earth, against nature, against species, and harvesting them for greed and money, making millions of dollars … this is the story, also, of the rhino, of the tiger, of the elephant, of the pangolin. All these animals under threat that are just somehow … that you can sell for a lot of money on the black market, unfortunately always in China.
It was this that intrigued me a lot, that it could be a very symbolic film. Then, what happened was that Leonardo DiCaprio, our executive producer on The Ivory Game, was very, very interested in the vaquita story. He, completely unrelated, approached us and said, “Look, I really, deeply care about the vaquita. I’m trying to save it. I’ve met with the Mexican president. I’m involved in this rescue effort with VaquitaCPR, they’re trying to save the vaquita by bringing it into human care. Would you be interested in doing a movie on it, because I think that may be the last resort, somehow, to help this species?”
Then, Terra Mater, the main production company I worked with on The Ivory Game, and I were like, “Hold on a minute. This sounds like an amazing opportunity.” If you have the communication power of a celebrity like Leonardo DiCaprio, and if you have a very symbolic story that translates to the rest of the world of what’s going on, you actually have a very interesting topic. You can have something that actually will get an audience, will be seen. Then, it didn’t take more than 24 hours for us to decide to move into this.
CLR: I have not seen your previous film, The Ivory Game, but I have seen, as a film critic, many other documentaries about endangered species going extinct in recent years. I was worried, going into yours, that I would have to watch one more incredibly depressing story of how humans are destroying life on the planet. It’s an important topic, but these become hard to watch, over time. What you did, instead, that I found fascinating, was you made your movie much more of an investigative thriller, following some of your subjects as they try to find out who is behind the hunting of the totoaba fish, which is what’s leading to the extinction of the vaquita whale. I loved that approach, it really helped me watch your film. How did you decide to do it that way?
RL: Exactly for that reason of why you were worried. I’m also an audience, I also go and watch these films, and I also get extremely depressed. So the first thought I had when I did The Ivory Game was, “How can we make this a riveting, gripping, even almost entertaining film, so we get a large audience who wants to see this?” The idea is that if you make a film that gives you heroes, that gives you hope, people who are fighting battles on the front lines, risking their lives, and if you make this a really amazing experience to be embedded with them and live the adventures with them, then it changes everything because you may get a much larger audience, audiences that usually only watch fiction films. You somehow are then able to reach millions of people versus, maybe, hundreds of thousands or just tens of thousands, and that makes all the difference.
I’m doing this movie, and also the previous one, because I actually want to save the species, and I want people to wake up and start to join a movement, to fight back, to do something about this because time is running out for these species. But to get enough critical mass you need a large audience. I look for elements that can make it extremely exciting to watch, but I don’t try to push it too much. You have these amazing investigative people who live in a world that is like official intelligence gathering. They use language that you only hear in the movies, so you feel you’re actually in a movie.
Then you have the cartels, who are super dangerous. You have the badass guys on the Sea Shepherd, the guy with the mohawk who just is incredible to be around, so it’s not very hard to have a style like that because this is what it feels like when you’re there. It feels like you’re in the middle of a thriller, and you need to watch out for yourself. This was the first movie where we had bodyguards to protect us, to watch over us, to deal with the threats that came from the cartel. You’re in the middle of something that is like the full experience, the movie experience, and so I just want to translate that to the audience. And also, get a bigger audience. I like those movies. I like Sicario, I like El Chapo. I like to watch these kinds of films, so if I’m in the real world of one of these things, if I live it myself, I might as well portray it to the audience in the same way.
CLR: Well, I think it definitely helped your narrative. So, there is this one horrible moment in your movie where we witness, on camera, something horrible happen to one of these endangered vaquita whales. Obviously, you couldn’t see that coming. Can you describe that experience of watching it happen?
RL: What happened was never really an option. It wasn’t like this was even possible. So, we went into this thinking this is going to be a rescue story, and we’ll see if they succeed, of course, but what actually went down, nobody was prepared for that. For me, to live through that was incredibly difficult, along with everybody else. It was extremely emotional but fortunately, somehow, because I also shoot myself, I had a lot of technical issues to deal with on that day. I had to make sure the camera had enough battery power, that I don’t run out of footage, of space on the camera chips. I need to make sure the audio recordings kept working and had batteries, and all these things. So there was a lot of thinking behind, “How can I make sure I’m capturing this moment?”, and that protects me, to some degree, from feeling overly emotional because I have a job to do.
I’m there to document this historic moment, and I can’t screw it up, so this protects you.It hits you, actually, like 24 hours later. You wake up the next day, and you’re just like, “What the hell happened?” You live through it again and again and again, and there was a moratorium where nobody was talking to anyone for like 48 hours, because everyone was in shock. In a way, we needed to find a way to communicate again, because this was something nobody had … this was one no one’s agenda. It wasn’t possible.
CLR: I bet. So, you shoot the film, yourself. How big is your working crew size, on average? I don’t know if it changed over the course of the film, but how many people are with you for the most part or, at least, were with you when you were making this movie?
RL: Usually, my crew size is anywhere between two to five people. In this case, though, we were, at maximum, twelve people, and at minimum, six, seven people. It was a much more challenging experience, and challenging movie to capture, because we were dealing with so many boats. Once you’re on a boat, you’re stuck on that boat, you can’t change perspective, so we needed to make sure we had enough cameras on different boats. I had two to three cameras. I was doing camera A, and then there was one more main cameraman, Tobias Corts, who was doing camera B. Then, I had backup units of people who were flying the drone, who would then take another camera on a ship. We rigged GoPros on different boats. Up to, I think it was, eight GoPros.
All this needs manpower. You need to change batteries every one and a half hours. You need to make sure everything works, the perspectives are right, the lens is clean. So it’s a very big effort, but I’ve shot more than 50 films now, so I’m quite experienced in dealing with a large camera kit and a lot of equipment, a lot of options. It was a lot of fun, in a way, and I had a good budget. We had a great production company that really trusted us, Terra Mater, that gave us the funds, and also the funds for security that we needed for the bodyguards and everything. So, we could work in peace, we could work very thoroughly, and I’m very happy because I think it translates into the picture.
CLR: Did you have any difficulty in negotiating access to any of your subjects, or to the Mexican government which, at least by the end of your film, seems at least partially complicit, or inept, in stopping this?
RL: The access was actually pretty good from the get-go. On one hand, it was because Leonardo DiCaprio opened a lot of doors for us. His name really meant a lot and we had the ability to immediately talk to VaquitaCPR, talk to Mexican journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, and we had access to the Mexican Navy because they respected where we were coming from. So, access wasn’t that much of a problem. The people I last got involved into the film were actually the legal fisherman. They were quite afraid, for a long time, to talk to us, because they didn’t know what the repercussions may be from the cartel. So, that was something where we needed a lot of trust-building. I had to promise them not to endanger their lives, because they live in the middle of this place, they’re still there right now, they’re following us on social media and everything, and they’re the heroes of the film, but they’re also part of the resistance movement. They’re standing up against the cartel, and that meant a lot of delicacy and really making sure they feel comfortable. They were the last to join as main subjects in the film.
CLR: So many of these kinds of films, and I mentioned there seem to be quite a lot of them these days, end up focusing on the unintended consequences of traditional Chinese medicine on the lives of these endangered species. Do you have a sense that China, official China, takes its role in stopping this seriously?
RL: I think they are, actually, because since Andrea Crosta handed over his report to the Chinese government, which was in June of last year, they actually really acted on that intelligence and there were 30-plus arrests of totoaba traffickers in China, with totoaba worth more than 150 million dollars. So they are actually a big step ahead of the Mexicans, who haven’t arrested anyone besides Oscar Parra. That wasn’t for totoaba trafficking, but for the murder of a soldier.
They have been, actually, really good about this, and they want to clean up that mess. The problem, of course, for them is it’s a thing of priorities. For them, up until very recently, totoaba was not a priority. They were not really thinking about it as a big problem, because they just thought about it as the swim bladder of some fish that’s being fished somewhere. But now that they understand that it’s actually destroying an ocean, causing the extinction of a whale, the smallest whale on Earth, the vaquita, they are taking it a lot more seriously, and I think they’re already on the right track. So I’m quite optimistic about China, but I’m not as optimistic, yet, about the Mexican government.
CLR: Well, that’s good to know. Richard, thank you so much for talking to me.
RL: Thank you!