Paul Watson is not a nice guy. This is made perfectly clear, time and again, over the course of the 110 minutes of this absorbing documentary, 10 years in the making, by Vancouver filmmaker Trish Dolman.
Of course, Watson - aggressive, opinionated, irritatingly smug, self-possessed to the point of narcissism - has never pretended to be otherwise. Now 61, a founding member of Greenpeace and, since 1977, the Nemo-like head of his own Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, he's always been more keen on the approbation of marine life (his "clients," as he calls them here) than bouquets and back-pats from homo saps. Nice guys, in Watson's world, don't get anything done - unless they're cutting cheques to underwrite Sea Shepherd's direct-action campaigns to protect whales, dolphins, seals and sharks from human predation.
Dolman clearly admires Watson's dedication, his chutzpah, the overall righteousness of the cause. But blessedly, her film, much of it shot aboard the Sea Shepherd ship Farley Mowat as it attempted to severely disrupt Japan's whaling activities in Antarctica's Southern Ocean during the mid-2000s, never descends entirely into hagiography or an uncritical celebration of Watson's walrusy charisma. Watson's orneriness sees to that, of course, along with brickbats and sniping from the likes of former Greenpeace campadre Patrick Moore, Joji Morishita of the International Whaling Commission, Watson's daughter Lani and ex-wife Allison Lance.
Indeed, one of Eco-Pirate's virtues is its unvarnished depiction of Watson's non-existent domestic side. While being the "pit-bull terrier of the ecological movement" has made him famous, Watson's obsession with the cause has made him a neglectful dad and mostly distracted spouse. At one point early in the film he describes Allison as "an animal person, not a people person, which is attractive to me." Later, we learn from a teary Allison that he's dumped her for an Australian woman. "I really thought I'd die with him … I guess I thought there was too much connection between us" to ever part, she said.
Dolman crams her picture with stuff - archival footage, at least 20 talking heads, myriad flashbacks, umpteen still photographs, newsreels, biographical interludes, stirring action sequences. One rouser, featuring Sea Shepherd Zodiacs and a helicopter in hot pursuit of a Japanese whaler, is scored, à la Apocalypse Now, to the sounds of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. In fact, there's so much stuff that you sometimes feel Dolman and her editor Brendan Woollard are straining to try to make all the elements cohere. It's documentary as driftnet.
At the same time, for all its scenes of distress and slaughter, Eco-Pirate is often very beautiful, even calming to watch and to listen to, especially when it takes to the water (Michael Brook's flow-and-ebb soundtrack is best described as "oceanic"). There are some nice ironies, too, my favourite being Watson's constant grousing about how Greenpeace is a bunch of well-funded, wrist-slapping wimps - "the Avon ladies of the environmental movement" is perhaps his most telling slur - even as his Sea Shepherd Society has succeeded in winning the whole-hearted support and participation of Emily Hunter, daughter of the late Robert Hunter, Greenpeace's co-founding father and patron saint.
"I never felt more alive and more true and pure of my actual self," Emily declares after one adrenaline-fuelled foray aboard the Farley Mowat. "If my death was then, in that moment, it would have been worth something."
Isn't such dedication worth as much as a $100 donation to the cause or a photo-op with Brigitte Bardot and baby seals on a giant floe off the coast of Newfoundland?
Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson opens Friday in theatres in Toronto and Vancouver.
Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson
- Written, directed and produced by Trish Dolman
- Featuring Paul Watson, Patrick Moore, Allison Lance, Emily Hunter
- Classification: PG