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Review: Eco-crisis documentary 'Sea of Shadows' lives up to its sinister title

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Calling an ecological crisis documentary "Sea of Shadows" sounds like a ruse, an attempt to add a noir element to an environmental situation.

The stark reality this documentary depicts, however, turns out to be far darker than anyone could imagine. The result is a chilling real-life criminal thriller set in a save-the-seas world.

As related by director Richard Ladkani in this purposeful, impressive work, a twist of chance even a top suspense novelist couldn't invent fatally intertwines the destinies of two species of fish with very particular qualities.

As a result, violent drug cartels, armed government troops and the need for 24-hour police protection all enter the picture.

Even saying that doesn't do justice to the number of stakeholders and the complexities of the situation's conflicting demands.

Winner of Sundance's audience award for world documentary, "Sea of Shadows" has the gift of doing justice to all of the above.

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The story's setting is the Gulf of California, so overflowing with marine life that Jacques Cousteau called it "the aquarium of the planet."

Perhaps the gulf's most sought-after resident is the totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is so valued in China for its supposed miraculous medicinal powers that its nickname is "the cocaine of the seas."

These bladders sell for so much in China, upwards of $100,000 each, that ruthless operatives with connections to the Sinaloa drug cartel are getting involved and the use of illegal, habitat-destroying gill nets is rampant.

Caught in these nets, both literally and figuratively, is the vaquita, considered to be the world's smallest whale and so elusive and mysterious that some fisherman think of it as a myth.

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