Cold hands, warm hearts

At the Edge of the World

on August 27, 2009 by John P. McCarthy
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The latest eco-doc follows a group of activists who put their sea legs where their mouths are during a perilous expedition aimed at disrupting whaling in Antarctica. Chronicling the mission required an intrepid spirit on the part of the filmmakers and the participants they set sail with, but the celluloid venture would benefit from more context and background. At The Edge of the World should draw a few pods of environmentalists during its brief theatrical run. Catching major eyeballs will have to wait for a television airing.

“What are you willing to die for?” is the movie’s tagline. “Whales” is the number one answer for the 46 volunteers participating in the 3rd Antarctic Campaign of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Intervention is the society’s modus operandi, and their quarry in late 2006 was a flotilla of Japanese whaling vessels. As we learned in this summer’s dolphin-oriented documentary The Cove, the Japanese exploit a loophole in the international ban on whaling by claiming they’re slaughtering the world’s biggest mammals for research purposes. Meat is their actual goal.

The greatest challenge facing this Sea Shepherd campaign is locating the Japanese within all 370,000 square miles of the Ross Sea, part of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. In addition to being under-financed, they’re at a disadvantage due to their equipment. Two “rusty hunks of junk” is how one volunteer describes the society’s flagship, The Farley Mowat (captained by Paul Watson) and The Robert Hunter (helmed by Dutchmen Alex Cornelissen, on his maiden voyage. The Mowat is too slow and The Bob is not ice-class. Adding to the David-and-Goliath nature of the story, Sea Shepherd ships do not fly under any nation’s flag and so are technically pirate vessels, a fact reflected by the mission’s logo—a variation on skull-and-crossbones.

Once they spot the Japanese, well into their approximately two-month voyage and as they’re running low on fuel, the crusaders embark on a series of harassment techniques meant to delay, distract and interfere with the hunt, thus saving animals in the whalers’ sights. Pulling alongside the lead ship, The Nisshin Maru, they throw stink bombs onto its deck; the canisters contain acid that taints any whale meat. Using Zodiac boats, the environmentalists attempt to foul the ship’s prop with rope and ram The Nisshin Maru with a “can opener” designed to rip a gash in its hull, disabling but not sinking the ship. During radio communication with the Japanese industrial fishermen, the Sea Shepherd folks describe themselves as engaged in a “law enforcement action” and intending to make citizen’s arrests on the high, cold seas.

There’s a beginning, middle and end to the story told by director Dan Stone. Recording the expedition—using no less than seven cinematographers, who deliver beautiful shots of the icy aquatic scenery under harsh conditions—creates a collective profile in courage. The most nerve-racking moments in At the Edge of the World are when contact with one of the Zodiacs is lost and two comrades appear to have made the ultimate sacrifice whilst trying to save the whales.

Stone doesn’t get into any philosophical issues raised or invite us to analyze any of the volunteers. (Japanese officials declined to be interviewed.) Naturally, there’s an assumption that the world community must stop the harvesting of whales, yet any questions that arise about extreme environmental activism are swept aside by the adventure that unfolds. Stone does make liberal use of news broadcasts from antipodean TV outlets, plus we see and hear Paul Watson conducting interviews with the news media via phone from aboard The Farley Mowat. But he declines to probe the tension between Greenpeace, which Watson co-founded and then broke from in 1977, and Sea Shepherd, which he now leads. Greenpeace’s flagship, Esperanza, is in the area yet refuses to share information or participate in any interventionist actions.

Thanks to a spell of bad weather during the voyage, we do learn about the three stages of seasickness: realizing you’re going to die, hoping you’re going to die and realizing you’re not going to die. That joke underscores the sacrifices made by the Sea Shepherd volunteers, who reckon they saved 500 whales during that season. Such a claim is hard to verify, their bravery and determination is not. Landlubbers shouldn’t apply for the challenge, but they ought to appreciate it.

Distributor: WealthEffectMedia, Inc.
Director/Producer: Dan Stone
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG for some disturbing images and brief language.
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: August 28 NY

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