2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Watson’

April 25, 2019

by Carla Hay

Paul Watson in "Watson"
Paul Watson in “Watson” (Photo courtesy of Participant Media)

“Watson”

Directed by Lesley Chilcott

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

The world’s top eco-scientists have warned that how we treat life in our oceans and other large bodies of water will largely determine the state of the environment in the coming decades. And right now, the environment is in serious trouble, according to Captain Paul Watson, an early member of Greenpeace who has dedicated his life to protecting wildlife in the oceans. Watson, who is a native of Canada, claims he was one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, but that claim has been disputed by some of the group’s early members. The documentary “Watson” is the first in-depth look at this pioneering environmentalist, whose passion for his work has come at a high price to his safety, freedom and personal life.

Told in chronological order, “Watson” begins with an examination into his lonely childhood, which he says was damaged by his cold and abusive father. Watson’s emotional escape from his unhappy home life was in his love for animals, which he inherited from his nurturing mother. As a teenager, he discovered his love of being out on the water as a sailor. He came of age as a self-described hippie in the late 1960s, in the era of protests against the establishment, which was an ideal setting for Watson to take his combined interests of animal rights and environmental activism to become a part of Greenpeace with other like-minded disrupters.

At first, Watson found his work with Greenpeace satisfying, as the group members went around the world, risking their lives to prevent illegal fishing and poaching at sea. Greenpeace was also one of the first environmental groups to successfully decrease the practice of killing baby seals for their fur. (Sensitive viewers be warned: This film has a lot of graphic and bloody footage of animals being killed.)

But when Watson clashed with other Greenpeace leaders on how to deal with their opponents (Watson was less inclined to negotiate with the opposition), he was ousted from Greenpeace and left to pick up the pieces and continue on his own. Watson parting ways with Greenpeace turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him, as he went on to form Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a group that made its mark by taking radical measures, such as blocking boats engaged in illegal fishing, diligently getting people arrested for crimes against animals and the environment, and saving the lives of literally thousands of animals. (The footage of Watson and his colleagues carrying baby seals to safety can melt even the coldest of hearts.)

“Watson” has plenty of compelling Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd footage that is used to effectively augment the stories that he tells in his sit-down interviews shown in the film. With only the fraction of funding that Greenpeace has, Sea Shepherd has established a reputation of being a scrappy group of crimefighters at sea. As Watson emphasizes in the film, Sea Shepherd only goes after those who are committing illegal acts. Killing whales for sport or shark finning (killing a shark by removing its fin to later sell the fin at a high price) are among the heinous activities that are explicitly shown in “Watson” as a shocking wake-up call to people who don’t know how this unnecessary cruelty to animals is having dire consequences for our environment.

However, as “Watson” points out, when sea animals are killed for food, and there are gigantic food industries that rely on what can be fished from the ocean, it’s much harder for Sea Shepherd to attain some of their goals. Not surprisingly, Watson and Sea Shepherd have become the targeted enemies of certain governments, and Watson’s legal troubles are unflinchingly documented in this film.

Watson doesn’t try to portray himself as a hero, as he freely admits that his workaholic ways have taken tolls on his personal life—he has three failed marriages, and he admits that he essentially missed out on raising his now-adult daughter. Watson’s legal problems have prevented him from being at sea like he used to in previous decades, but being literally grounded has allowed him to be become a family man to his current wife Yana (whom he married in 2015) and their young son. “Watson” was skillfully directed by Lesley Chilcott, a co-producer of the Oscar-winning 2006 environmental film “An Inconvenient Truth.” That movie, as well as Netflix’s excellent 2017 documentary “Chasing Coral,” would make an excellent companion piece to “Watson,” which gives a very personal look into one of the warriors at the forefront of trying to save our environment.

UPDATE: Participant Media and Terra Mater Factual Studios will release “Watson” in New York City on November 8, 2019. Animal Planet will have the TV premiere of “Watson” on December 22, 2019.