Film Review: Defend, Conserve, Protect (2019)

The documentary Defend, Conserve, Protect has a simple purpose. Its title is the motto for Sea Shepherd, the not-for-profit organisation battling maritime slaughter, most notably braving a hostile Southern Ocean to stymie Japanese whaling operations. It follows firsthand a fleet of ships moving to intercept a Japanese whaling contingent. It is also released at a time when Japan has only just announced its recommencement of commercial whaling. Not to diminish noble intentions, but did someone say ‘recruitment drive’?

Sea Shepherd has a roguishness that entices a fierce following. Its logo appropriating the skull and crossbones, substituting bones out for Poseidon’s trident and a shepherd’s crook, can paint its members as virtuous pirates spreading the forces of good over evil where no other is willing to. Though these aren’t your typical sea hands. Bar some grizzled faces, most of the crews being farewelled from the docks on the expedition documented here (an operation from 2012/13) appear to be students in their 20s. Defend, Conserve, Protect is at pains to point out that, in the words of earnest young captain John Hammarstedt, ‘A world without whales is a world without us’, so these young people are buying into a mentality of volunteering months of their time to safeguard not only the whales’ future but apparently their own. And this documentary approaches these activists with an unswerving faith.

DCP‘s tone is righteously triumphant. Though with such a narrow focus, DCP can often amount to PR bombardment more than documentary. Science and analysis make small cameos, but these are fleeting. This is not that kind of documentary. Perhaps an expert on maritime law could have explained the tricky area of nautical diplomacy around the Antarctic circle, and consequently the types of tactics and level of legal authority that are allowed to Sea Shepherd. At other times insights from a marine biologist or a whaling industry expert could have explained how the whaling industry is propped up, why the practice continues and the social and political factors determining its future. But no. It is seemingly enough to trust that Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson knows best and that the only people standing in the way are Sea Shepherd.

This is fine when you’re preaching to the choir, just as long as the makers of DCP understand that not everyone seeing this documentary will be a churchgoer and that there is still active scepticism from many, including Greenpeace — whom Watson proudly admits he became too ‘radical’ for — about Sea Shepherd’s methods.

To hear Watson’s words on Sea Shepherd being less an organisation than a movement is to be introduced to a religion of sorts. This effect is only enhanced by the presence of Dan Aykroyd (GhostbustersBlues Brothers) as narrator. In some clumsy intermissions, as we gaze at these magnificent mammals roving the blue depths, Aykroyd starts a soliloquy on the fate of humankind — ‘We are the cycle…’ — his deep, rich voice waxing lyrical and wafting over us as if the voice of God. You cannot doubt the fervour or sincerity of the intention — indeed there is much to applaud — but DCP does raise questions in its framing of Sea Shepherd’s activities and its indulgence of sentiment over substance.

Nonetheless it is compelling, and to be drawn into the excitement is to wonder if director Stephen Amis has got it right. DCP‘s taste for the dramatic does lend itself to some tense moments, particularly when Hammarstedt’s ship becomes wedged between a whaling ship and its refueling tanker. It’s a marquee moment, pure adrenaline, even if what could easily be called reckless endangerment of an amateur crew who have been promised a safe return home is instead framed as an undisputed triumph. Under Amis’s direction this is a grand high-seas adventure, pitting the might of a seasoned and well-resourced maritime fleet against the motley crew of the smaller but more agile Sea Shepherd.

After all, who better to direct than a man whose credits include a budget sci-fi fantasy called The 25th Reich featuring time travel, Nazi robots and megafauna; a man who can see the exciting side of a grim cause; a man who would commission a promotional poster that renders his documentary like a B-grade war movie: title in Impact font, iron-clad and blood-stained, over a heaving sea playing host to an epic maritime battle to determine the future of whale-kind. When you put it like that, who wouldn’t cheer for those guys?

Defend, Conserve, Protect is in cinemas from 25th July.

2.5 blergs


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