On 3rd March 2020, to mark World Wildlife Day in Brussels, Ciné-ONU partnered with the Austrian Cultural Forum and UNODC to screen Sea of Shadows to an audience of over two hundred at Cinéma Galeries.
Sea of Shadows, an award-winning documentary film by Richard Ladkani, tackles the important issue of wildlife crime and the links between conservation, poverty alleviation and the challenges facing law enforcement. To do this, the film follows the plight of the vaquita, the world’s most endangered cetacean, and the teams of scientists, conservationists, undercover agents and journalists in their efforts to save the species from extinction. Nets used to illegally poach the totoaba, a rare fish sought after due to the perceived revitalising properties of its swim bladder in Chinese medicine, are killing vaquitas and threaten to destroy all marine life in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. As it stands, less than 15 vaquitas remain.
Sea of Shadows portrays the harm humans are inflicting on the ocean and reminds us of what needs to be done to restore balance, with reference to the United Nation’s sustainable development goal 14: to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. Following the screening, there was an engaging panel discussion with filmmaker Richard Ladkani, Greens/EFA MEP Grace O’Sullivan and Jenna Dawson-Faber from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Richard Ladkani explained his motivation for making films, “for me, making films is about inspiring people. If you make good films, you can reach millions of people”. Grace O’Sullivan expressed the impact the film had had on her, “I remember sailing in the Antarctic with Green Peace and seeing a humpback whale asleep on the surface of the water. I remember meeting its eye in the same way we looked into the eyes of the vaquita tonight. That moment will never leave me, and I felt that tonight.”
The film prompted a discussion on the need to recognise wildlife crime as real crime and to conduct proper criminal investigations in order to protect endangered species. “Criminal syndicates around the world are feeding off our planet […] This is seen as an environmental problem, for scientists to solve. But science-based solutions are not enough” said Richard Ladkani. Jenna Dawson-Faber also highlighted this issue, “these crimes are low risk and high reward. We need to flip that”. Indeed, Jenna Dawson-Faber highlighted the important work of The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime in sharing information amongst its partners and feeding this information into the criminal justice system.
Jenna Dawson-Faber also expounded the need to recognise the livelihood component at the heart of the issue, “These problems are something we can’t solve without the communities that are living alongside the wildlife, in areas of demand”. Grace O’Sullivan similarly spoke of the need for a collective effort, “we have to work for the conservation of species, ocean governance and ocean health. […] we are looking at huge global problems and seeing that nothing can be solved in isolation.”
When asked by a member of the audience on the current status of the vaquita, Richard Ladkani confirmed seven had been spotted within the last four to five months, two of which were babies. Richard Ladkani was, however, quick to express the ongoing nature of the battle to save the vaquita, “Cartels have gotten even worse and there has been a massive invasion into vaquita territory. In early January alone 1000 boats left the shores and put out nets right in front of the Mexican navy and the Sea Shepherd vessel”.
Richard Ladkani closed the panel with a statement on the tangible power of film which resonated with the audience: “If I made you care, then I did the right thing […] if I can make you think ‘I care so I am going to go out and plant trees or educate children on environmentalism’, then I have done a great thing.”