An Uncompromising Life Aquatic: Filmmaker Lesley Chilcott’s new documentary spotlights Canadian eco activist Paul Watson

HED: An uncompromising life aquatic

SUB: Filmmaker Lesley Chilcott’s new documentary spotlights Canadian eco activist Paul Watson

By Steve Gow

He’s been branded an eco-terrorist. He’s been arrested several times and faced jail time. And Japan authorities have even assured that he is placed on Interpol’s red notice – essentially, marking him a wanted man around the globe.

But after watching Lesley Chilcott’s eponymous documentary, there’s no denying you have to admire Paul Watson.

“I thought I was fairly well-educated in environmental science and all of these things when I started following Paul,” says the award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles about the Canadian-born ecological activist. “A politician makes compromises, Paul Watson does not make compromises.”

As Chilcott uncovers in her film Watson (which screens at Eau Claire Market Cinemas on Nov. 7 and 10 prior to streaming digitally beginning Nov. 20), when it comes to climate change and a rigid dedication to illuminating and putting a stop to the unlawful destruction of all things aquatic, no one even comes close to the nearly-70-year-old environmental icon.

“Whether we admit it or not, we are all very aware of climate change and a lot of the science that has to do with land, air and locally-polluted water,” says Chilcott. “But the crimes on the high seas that have to do with where we get 70 per cent of our oxygen, most people are painfully unaware, and the fact he’s been out there babbling decade after decade about it, it just inspired me.”

But the five-decade veteran activist is certainly more motivated than just “babbling” about ecological issues. In fact, it was his direct militant tactics that got him, one of the founding members, booted from Greenpeace’s board of directors in 1977 after he aggressively put himself between hunters and seals on Canada’s east coast.

“It was the best thing that ever happened,” Watson says in the movie, saying the move led him to form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) – a group that forsakes peaceful protest in lieu of exploiting mainstream publicity and taking aggressive action against enemies of the environment.

As such, Watson provides plenty of first-hand footage of Sea Shepherds ramming and disarming an infamous whaling trawler, confronting a Costa Rican vessel capturing and carving fins off sharks before tossing them back to drown on the seabed, as well as his notorious international battles against Japanese whale pirates (which he astutely pitched to Animal Planet as the hit series Whale Wars).

“In addition to 166 terabytes that (SSCS) had laying around that had been digitized but not uploaded, there was a warehouse full of tapes of all shapes and sizes that we took to a guy I literally found on Craigslist (to transfer),” admits Chilcott, who contrasts the stunning footage with Watson’s own first-hand account of his journey in eco-activism. 

“I think of it more as an action movie interrupted by a talking head,” adds Chilcott. “You have to get people on the edge of their seat at some point and I think the key to doing that is telling your story in an experiential way. You can’t lecture.”

At the same time, Watson’s images and central theme is powerfully revealing. From working on such socially and environmentally conscious documentaries as An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman, she has learned from experience to create a palatable piece of hopeful filmmaking while still delivering a harrowing message – in this case, that humans will only be killing ourselves if we keep allowing our oceans to be abused and marine life exploited into extinction.

“I made a conscious decision to have Paul tell his story and at some point, you’ll be right there with him, and at other points you might think he’s too harsh, and at other points you might think he’s too uncompromising,” says Chilcott.  “But by the end, you will see his point of view.”

Watson screens at Calgary’s Eau Claire Market Cinemas on Nov. 10 prior to streaming digitally beginning Nov. 20.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.