Movie Review: Eco-Pirate: the story of Paul Watson

Eco-Pirate is a documentary about Canadian activist Paul Watson, who represents the radical and violent end of the green movement. Watson has sunk numerous whaling vessels by ramming his own ship into them and has inconvenienced countless others with high seas tactics of guerrilla warfare.
Watson is known primarily within activist circles, but has gained more mainstream attention in recent years as the subject of the TV series Whale Wars. Eco-Pirate is more or less a 360-degree profile of Watson and his involvement with the green movement.

The movie shifts between multiple tones and somewhat randomly categorized segments of footage. The first couple minutes are comprised of breathtaking footage of Antarctic icebergs and a classical score somewhat reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s masterful Encounters At the End of the World. There is shift to Watson’s current work at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit organization he created and the company whose ships, captained by Watson, are known for ramming into whaling vessels. We also get Watson’s involvement with the startup of Greenpeace, as well as bits and pieces of his personal life that include childhood and problems committing to women and family.

The segment depicting Watson’s involvement in the creation of Greenpeace is created using mostly archive footage of protests, hippies and a young Watson with friends, relatively poor and with little resource, trying to put something meaningful together. The footage is edited together in such a way that it lends the material an energy that makes the subject more interesting than it perhaps would have been to most viewers.

Portions of the movie take a political stand on animal rights, primarily on illegal whaling but also on the seal hunt. The imploring of the audience to see things as Watson does isn’t overly forceful and is aimed at those on the fence about animal rights or those who never gave the issue much thought.

Watson himself is an unusual personality. He is sort of a Cormac McCarthy-type in that he is gregarious and easily attracts people into his orbit, but would much rather exist on the peripheries of society. The movie doesn’t idealize Watson like other character-driven documentaries do, but it certainly admires him and asks us to do the same. Consider a scene where Watson is standing juxtaposed against his newest and largest ship. The wind blows ever so slightly in his hair and through the Sea Shepherd flag. He looks like a mighty figure.

Another scene, which takes place at a protest, journalists encircling Watson, sees an interview cut back and forth between footage of the unruly protesters getting water hosed and arrested. In the midst of the chaos Watson appears cool, wise and authoritative. In fact, if Watson’s critics bother to see the movie they may be surprised to find that while Watson may seem like an extremist, he is articulate and, for the most part, argues in a very reasonable way.
There is one scene near the end in which Watson and his crew launch a full-scale attack on a very large Japanese whaling vessel. The scene, intentionally or not, shows how the thought processes of Watson’s predominately young and idealistic crew are more naïve than realistic. One crewmember suggests he hurl a stink bomb from the top of the crow’s nest during a rainstorm. Another suggests they simply ram the whaling vessel, even though it would destroy their own ship in the middle of the ocean. It could very well be that luck has played a role in the continued success of the Sea Shepherd campaigns.

The primary problem with Eco Pirate is that director Trish Dolman packs the movie with too much footage and far too much information that’s not terribly interesting. With a running time of about two hours, a good thirty minutes could easily have been cut. The movie parcels out information on what seems like virtually everything Paul Watson has ever said, done, or set out to do. Dolman would have been better off giving us a condensed version of Watson’s life and times, or focused primarily on his current endeavors. With this much information, the movie risks appealing only to the Paul Watson enthusiasts out there.

Eco-pirate will be playing select evening dates at Cinematheque, 100 Arthur St., beginning Sept. 22 and running until Oct. 2.