Sundance documentary swims into a ‘Sea of Shadows’ |

Sundance documentary swims into a ‘Sea of Shadows’

A still from "Sea of Shadows" by Richard Ladkani, which explores the devastation caused by the fishing industry off the coast of Mexico.
Richard Ladkani/Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Not that long ago you could grab one of the world’s most sublime fish tacos off a street vendor and, marveling at the ebb tide, stroll down the beach at San Felipe as if you owned the joint.

These days there is something different in the air along the northwestern coast of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The tropical paradise remains as a physical manifestation but additional variables have disturbed the carefree vibe it rode in on.

Take the Totoaba fish, which can grow as large as an NFL left tackle, for instance, and the endangered porpoise referred to as the Vaquita. Now, in order to understand the equation that puts both species on the cusp of extinction, you’d also have to plug in the local fishing community, the Mexican Navy, the Chinese Mafia, and the Sinaloa Cartel.

And that’s where Austrian documentary filmmaker and cinematographer Richard Ladkani enters the frame. With “Sea of Shadows,” the fourth film he has brought to the Sundance Film Festival set to screen in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, Ladkani is out to educate the world of an impending ecological disaster.

'Sea of Shadows'

Sunday, Jan. 27, 5:30 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre
Monday, Jan. 28, noon, Temple Theatre
Thursday, Jan. 31, 6:30 p.m., The Ray Theatre
Friday, Feb. 1, 6 p.m., Tower Theatre
Saturday, Feb. 2, noon, Holiday Village Cinema 2

“Segments of the regional fishing industry have joined the cartel solely out of a need to survive,” Ladkani said in a phone interview with The Park Record from Baden, Austria. He remained shaken from his and his crew’s experiences documenting the human-caused devastation and the extreme peril in which the conservationist side attempts to cope.

“The San Felipe people are scared because they envision the whole coastal area will turn into a war zone controlled by the cartel. We are hoping with our film, to expose what is going on,” Ladkani said.

Introducing filmgoers to “heroes” like Carlos Loret de Mola, an investigative journalist from Mexico City; Jack Hutton, a key drone pilot onboard the conservation vessel “Sea Shepherd;” and local San Felipe fishermen Javier and Alan Valverde, the film gives you an up close and personal look at the war zone.

What’s happening is that the market for the “swim bladder” of the Totoaba (referred to as the “cocaine” of the sea) as a fertility enhancer in Chinese diets, has risen to such a level that cartel-supported fishing fleets with their miles of gill nets also snag the Vaquita, of which there are only fifteen remaining in the ecosystem.

The large Mexican naval presence results in some arrests, of course, but wrist slapping is the rule of the day. There is no actual deterrent.

“What is happening in Mexico is yet another example of human-caused devastation due to the greed of a few,” Ladkani said. “By illuminating the problem through cinematic and compelling storytelling while offering solutions and captivating heroes with a cause, I hope to help save this precious ecosystem, which is on the verge of total collapse.

“You need to be right at the front line to have an impact not to just make a good film but to make an impact. We used drones, various camera teams and more than a half dozen Go Pros just to stay close to the action.

“I believe each one of us has the ability to be part of the solution. I try to use my skills as a filmmaker to inspire audiences to never give up on our planet and help bring change toward a better and brighter future.”

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