Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson (Director: Trish Dolman): There’s been no shortage of the spotlight on environmental and animal rights activist Paul Watson in recent years. In 2008, the Pirate for the Sea documentary examined his life, the popular Whale Wars show (on the Animal Planet channel), which follows his exploits fighting against illegal Japanese whaling, is about to begin its fourth season next month, South Park satirized him in an episode a couple of years ago, and now comes Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson. The film, making its world premiere at Hot Docs, took director Trish Dolman eight years to complete and results in a finely crafted account of Watson’s life’s work, also taking brief glimpses into the Canadian’s personal side.
A founding member of Greenpeace in 1971, Watson eventually alienated too many in the organization with his impatience at a perceived excess of bureaucracy and overly passive protest policies. In 1977 he left to start the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which he still fronts today. The organization employs aggressive, confrontational means in their crusade, whether it’s ramming (or even sabotaging) whaling ships, taking on other vessels in high speed chases, or firing smoke and stink bombs onto the decks of illegal fishing ships in an effort to disrupt their operations. Dolman captures some amazing visuals, both of the beautiful scenery and the dangerous situations that Watson and his crew place themselves in. A particularly moving scene shows Watson accompanying Emily Hunter as they scatter some of the ashes of her late father, environmental activist pioneer Bob Hunter, on top of an iceberg in the Antarctic.
Interviews with admirers (including actor Martin Sheen and Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis) and Watson’s peers in the environmental movement elicit strong love-him-or-hate-him reactions, both to his prickly personality and controversial, agitating methods. Much of the interview content is highly critical of Watson and certainly doesn’t paint him in a favourable light on a number of fronts (his own daughter admits that he placed the animals he defends ahead of the needs of his own family). This is to the film’s credit as, in conjunction with the equally extensive amount of praise he receives, it leaves the viewer feeling that they’re getting a well-rounded portrayal of the man. Watson himself says that he has more faith in, and love for, animals than he does for humans. Despite his flaws, Watson possesses an oddball charm. Witness, for example, the devilishly inspired scheme he devises to retire his former ship, named the Farley Mowat, by putting the Canadian government on the hook for the cost, as well as embarrassing them at the same time. Absolute genius.
Effectively blending archival footage with the aforementioned elements, Eco-Pirate reveals Watson to be a complex, compelling figure who is tenaciously dedicated to his cause, which makes him someone both respected and reviled within the environmental activist community. Watson, who joined in the Q&A session following the film’s screening via Skype from overseas, says that he is pleased with how the film turned out.