Sea Shepherd documentary, 'Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist': Violent and comical
Early in his new documentary film, “Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist,” Peter Brown, a 30-year veteran of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, assesses the group’s strategy. “Our job,” he says, “is to manufacture awareness.”
Ramming boats, hurling stinky acid at whalers -- it’s that kind of “manufacturing” that has made the Animal Planet show “Whale Wars” one of the most popular on TV. For the first two seasons, Brown played an oft-maligned foil to Capt. Paul Watson as the group battled the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean. But he’s not just an occasional boat captain and crewmember; Brown is also a TV producer and director, and his willingness to create drama can seem like heresy from a man who has made his living shooting documentary TV.
Brown’s film is a peek behind the curtain: The activist often creates confrontation, but the documentarian must show the less-than-flattering bits. This film is a warts-and-all view of his involvement in selected campaigns with the Sea Shepherd team since 1981, and it also deconstructs the classic political-movement film.
For instance, during the 2005 campaign to stop the Makah Indian tribe from engaging in a traditional whale hunt, Brown took matters into his own hands. After months of floating in the harbor at Washington state’s Neah Bay in a standoff with the tribe, with scores of camera crews standing around waiting for something to happen, Brown decided to feed the media’s need for images.
In one of the most violent and comical sequences in the film, he jumps into a Zodiac with Sea Shepherd director Lisa DiStefano and zooms back and forth in front of the docks, trying to land DiStefano so she can tresspass, as young Makah tribespeople hurl large rocks from close range. When he finally deposits her on the docks, a tribesmember immediately shoves her into the bay.
Brown didn’t film that sequence, because he was in it, so he tracked down the footage from someone else. But this characterizes his role, as Sea Shepherd member and as a filmmaker; he is both newsgatherer and newsmaker.
Watson, interviewed by email, hadn’t seen the film yet and said he couldn’t openly endorse the film: “The title is the only concern for us. I think Peter Brown chose it to attract attention.” He added that Brown’s son is his godson and that they are close friends, saying, “It’s Peter’s film, and if this is his perception and his project, then I am fine with that.”
Brown’s sarcastic narration -- sometimes funny, sometimes annoying -- does not mask the fact that he is a true believer. The “eco-terrorist” of the title is him poking fun at himself. Based in Los Angeles, Brown was a field producer and director for five years on the popular NBC show “Real People,” which featured non-actors with unique stories or talents -- a precursor to the reality-TV genre. He was also the original field producer for “Entertainment Tonight.” (“On ‘Whale Wars’ we get 2 million viewers. We used to get 40 million on ‘Real People.’ ”)
Brown's work has involved “cultural adventures” all over the globe, and in 1982 he joined Watson on a Sea Shepherd voyage to Iki Island, Japan, where Watson negotiated a stop to the killing of dolphins for meat. Brown came along to film and was arrested on a visa violation. “They didn’t arrest Watson; he walked away, of course,” said Brown, laughing. Watson is protected by guardian angels and rarely suffers any ill effect from his brash behavior, he says in the movie.
Brown eventually became secretary and treasurer of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in the 1990s. He was also thrown out on three occasions. When he was injured on the boat during Season 2 of “Whale Wars” -- nearly losing his thumb when it got caught in a Zodiac line -- he decided it was time to make his film.
The documentary is no orderly, well-structured affair full of talking heads. This is mostly raw battle footage, but it is valuable for its depiction of how campaigns really work. The 30 years of clashes -- including hand-to-hand struggles with drunken seal hunters on the Canadian pack ice, drawing fire from the Norwegian Navy, as well as confronting an Ecuadorian admiral who is the godfather of poaching in the Galapagos Islands -- are messy, weird and, largely, improvised on the fly.
Through it all, Brown is irreverent and abrasive, throwing out both praise and sharp criticism for Watson and his foes. Brown also makes controversial charges: for instance, that the killing of baby seals for fur, which continues today, is mostly happening because eco-tourism by protesters brings in so much money. No seal hunt, no protesters, so the state keeps it going.
"Why don’t we hire the sealers to build and run a hockey rink for a million dollars, which would employ them longer?" he asks. "Or buy them a bar? It would be cheaper. But it doesn’t make for good media.”
Watson responds: “The sealing industry is dying. We have knocked the market out internationally. I’m not sure what Peter is referring to, but I believe the seal hunt will be eliminated within a few years.”
As Brown sees it, individual environmental groups should stop fighting one another for money and media attention. He recalls an incident a couple of years ago in which Greenpeace would not give Sea Shepherd information about the location of the Japanese whaling fleet. Watson calls his organization “the ladies of the night of the environmental movement: People may agree with us at night but they don’t want to be seen with us in the daytime.”
Says Brown: “I’m a guy who likes to act a little crazy, poke fun at everyone. But ... I want to see real change. Paul and guys like him, they sometimes can’t see it, because they’re motivated by real anger. I can actually make friends with the Danish military commander who shot at us. I don’t want you to watch this film and get angry. I want to find a better way to make real change.”
"Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist" has shown at several film festivals and is currently in final edits. Brown says he has interest from several distributors and expects it to see theatrical release.
-- Dean Kuipers
Photos, from top: "Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist" video trailer. Sea Shepherd Capt. Paul Watson, left, and Peter Brown (with camera) on the bridge of a Sea Shepherd ship as they prepare for conflict, in a video image from "Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist." Credit: Peter Brown