Richard Ladkani and Andrea Crosta took some time to speak with Solzy at the Movies about Sea of Shadows during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The interview took place a few days after the premiere but before the film took home the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary.
When I first watched Sea of Shadows, I knew that this would be a very important film. One in which I immediately requested an interview after watching the film. This isn’t something that happens all the time bis speaks to the power of this film. Among the handful of documentaries that I viewed during the fest, it’s easily the most important by far. I’m so thrilled that National Geographic Documentary Films worked quick to acquire Sea of Shadows because people NEED to watch this film.
How thrilled are you for the opportunity to premiere Sea of Shadows at Sundance?
Richard Ladkani: No really, of course—how can you not be thrilled about Sundance! What makes Sundance so double amazing is that when we started the idea for this film, the first conversation we had between the Terra Mater producer and myself was could this film timing wise work so we can launch at Sundance because that would be the perfect platform for this kind of film to have an impact with our film with a message. We looked at the schedule and we had one year and ten months. We’re like, Okay, it’s going to be tight. We were never able before to make it in that time frame. It was two and a half years but we will do everything in our power to make that happen and all the planning, the scheduling of the film shoots, the production editing, when we start and end—everything was timed so we can somehow make it for Sundance. To get in in the end was ten times more rewarding because that’s all we talked about for two years then maybe for another film. So we’re extremely happy. We had an amazing reception. Were you there?
I watched a screener ahead of time.
Richard Ladkani: We had a great reception. We had two standing ovations. People were crying in the audience. They were shaking hands and extremely excited about this film. It couldn’t have been better for us.
As I as watching it, I’m sitting there thinking, How is this being allowed to happen?!?
Richard Ladkani: Yeah, of course. Well, that’s exactly why we wanted to make this film. Because it was a war that was destroying an ocean but nobody had heard about it and it’s five hour drive south of Los Angeles. When something’s that close—basically in the backyard of the US—the Chinese mafia and the Sinaloa drug cartel joined forces to exploit nature and kill an ocean system just to get the cocaine of the sea. Nobody heard about it. Nobody knew about it. Nobody knows what a totoaba is or a vaquita is and what is going on in this place. We exactly for that reason—we were so angry and outraged about it. We decided to make this film to put it into the spotlight and have the whole world talk about it.
How long did production start following the completion of The Ivory Game?
Richard Ladkani: It was about a year later. So we were looking, thinking about projects. It was actually Andrea. He had also been in The Ivory Game and we had been in touch after looking for maybe another topic that would interest us. He was the first one to reach out to me and tell me about, Have you ever heard above about the totoaba trafficking and what’s going on and this exploitation of the world. Andrea had been on this much longer. He’d done a huge investigation in China and we joined forces because he’s been on it. It was an immediate in for us and we could really get this going.
Can you talk about the importance of the Elephant Action League and what your organization does?
Andrea Crosta: I established Elephant Action League go about five years ago in Los Angeles when I realized that in terms of the fight against environmental crime, one key piece was missing. It was intelligence run by intelligence professionals. I found the whole approach very reactive. You seize the cargo and you arrest somebody who already did something. So I said, Okay, the only way to go proactive to just think to be ahead of the game is to use intelligence in the exact same manner that you use intelligence with other global threats like terrorism, organized crime, or narcotics trafficking. Because I have a parallel professional career and conservation and security intelligence technology, I said Okay, I want to create an NGO—a new NGO and merge those two worlds and see if I can help. Most of my team members are not scientists, biologists or activists. I have absolutely nothing against them but they are security intelligence professionals, former law enforcement, former FBI, former CIA because we are trying to tackle this problem in a more professional manner.
As I always say, and it was also repeated yesterday at the screening, every time they asked me about environmental crime, the first thing I say is Please forget the first word, Environmental. It’s Crime with capital C and the people behind are pretty terrible people day-in and they are laughing at us right now because our attempt to stop them is just arbitrary. That’s what the Elephant Action League is trying to do.
During an ongoing investigation, are there any active talks with authorities?
Andrea Crosta: Usually not because it would get really complicated and dangerous for our people.
Richard Ladkani: And the corruption.
Andrea Crosta: And the corruption, of course
Richard Ladkani: You never know.
Andrea Crosta: At the moment, we are able to have a different way of working around the world only in one country which is Thailand, where we have excellent relations with the Thai authorities so they know about us. Otherwise, we do our work. We don’t tell anyone that we are doing what we are doing where we are doing and only at the very end.—In the meantime, we are trying to understand with whom we’d be able to share at the end because it’s a challenge. Right now, we are working in some countries in Africa and we don’t have a single soul to share with, which is very complicated. But usually at the end, we put together a thick confidential intelligence brief. We put together a public report always because we feel obliged to tell the story so the report from this film is called Operation Fake Gold and is online. You can download it. It is a very interesting report. The confidential intelligence brief is only for law enforcement and we share with Mexican, Chinese, and American authorities. They can start right away. It is pure actionable intelligence. They can start right away an investigation on their own and they’re actually working on in it. We’re very happy about it.
Can you talk about the role that Leonardo DiCaprio played on the film?
Richard Ladkani: Well, it was interesting because he somehow triggered the film that it was greenlit. Terra Mater and I had been talking about the next project and Terra Mater is a great company in that way that we were successful together with The Ivory Game but also, they really shared the same vision like bringing change to this world through movies that it’s possible. They want to support that. They were very happy when DiCaprio actually called us and said, “I deeply care about this vaquita issue. I’ll be meeting with the Mexican president. I’m supporting the Vaquita CPR mission to rescue the last vaquitas. I think there is a film in this and would you be interested in doing it if I also open all the doors for you to the Mexican government?”
We didn’t have to think very long about it because when you have that support and that help with the cause, which means you will get a promotion for the issue in social media and everything. It really makes a difference. It means you will be heard. People will listen and the Mexican government will listen. That’s why we wanted to make this film—to bring change to this place. So his role was door opener in the beginning.
He also put us in touch with Carlos Loret de Mola,who was one of the key players in this whole thing. He has this amazing show that is followed by millions of people every day and has the respect of the government. So him being in the movie and being investigative it is in his works was great because people were like—they really gave us a lot of respect. Because of him being there and him associating himself with us is where we got the protection of the Mexican Navy, for example. We were allowed to be on Navy warships. We were allowed to be on Navy helicopters. They were embedding us in their operations. They knew when Carlots Loret de Mola comes, he has the connections to infiltrate anything in terms of corruption and admirals and Navy. He will expose what’s really going on so they better cooperate with us. So it was great and it made our filming also a bit safer because we had the official protection of the government. The cartels were a bit more afraid of targeting us because they would have the Mexican Navy hunting them down. There were times where the admiral promised me—when things got really ugly and the soldier was shot and we were getting threats directly against us—that they would send you know a platoon to protect us and protect us 24 hours a day. There was even talk about escorting us.
We got a direct threat from Oscar Parra. And it was literally, “We know where you are. We know what you’re doing, which car you’re driving. We know you’re after us.” And I told the admiral that this is pretty getting very serious. We had bodyguards of our own but he said, “Look I think you should like leave and we’ll give you a military escort all the way up to Mexicali so you don’t get targeted.” So it was really a good collaboration and fascinating but it also allowed us to really sniff around. They didn’t know we’re working with him. He was doing the undercover infiltration part. We were somehow officially investigating this but we had our ways to really get deep into the story and get this 360 view of what’s actually really going on.
What goes through your head as a filmmaker when you start getting such threats?
Richard Ladkani: How do I incorporate them into the film? (Laughs) Seriously—I think that when I make a film, I really want the audience to feel what we are going through. I want them to share the experience. I want to have the audience in like the backseat so I want them to feel what we feel. We run pretty much all the time. We had a crew of 12 people—two to three cameramen. I also shoot myself—everything so I’m the Director of Photography and director. I have a second cameraman and we had a third cameraman so we were ready to go rock and roll all the time. When those threats happen, I was thinking, Okay, this is getting real. Obviously the threats were not just against me, they were also against characters. He (Andrea) was in the house at that time with us. So you incorporate that and you make you make it worthwhile but obviously, you want to die. I mean—I have two kids. I have a family. You want to survive so you’re not naive about it. But the biggest pressure for me sometimes as a director was to keep the crew safe and make the right decision like if we stay. The riot scene—if you remember when everything went totally out of control, there was a big conversation about as it was going on. I mean literally the minute—it escalated very fast. But just for us: should we go there and should we cover what’s going on or is this going to be too risky for us? Initially I said, “No, we’re not getting into this but then we’re like well let’s just have a look.” And then you—
Andrea Crosta: It was very weird. I went ahead. Because at a certain moment, I was very deep. At the same time, I was working with the FBI guy and I had two other teams completely undercover. Some of them are Asian and you would not see them in the film. So I was partially covered. At a certain moment, I had to invent something so I invented that I was an Italian journalist. So at least if they ask—
Richard Ladkani: And that we were his crew.
Andrea Crosta: His crew. So this way I could go around—I had this weird thing with all the riots. I remember I went first to check and I turned the corner and then all of a sudden, I see—I don’t know—maybe 300 400 fishermen turning and taking pictures of me. Oh shit, my cover is completely gone. So I came back and I said but I think we can try.
Richard Ladkani: They know we’re here anyway.
Andrea Crosta: Exactly. It was a super weird.
Richard Ladkani: We decided to go in and then it turned into arguably one of the most dangerous situations we were in ever on this film because of when they started like throwing the rocks and everything. We didn’t have helmets or anything. We didn’t know what was going to happen and then suddenly shots were being fired and we didn’t know where they’re coming from. I remember the bullets flying nearby because it was hitting a wall near where I was standing. And you’re just like, Okay. And now I’m right in the middle of this film called Sicario or something like it’s real now and that’s when we got a bit crazy.
Do you feel like you have more of a higher profile because of The Ivory Game?
Andrea Crosta: Yeah, that’s why my role in the Elephant Action League is to be the public face. My first concern is always to protect the identities of the rest of the team. They are completely unknown to anyone including within the Elephant Action League. Not everyone knows who they are and my role because we are an NGO after all so we have to talk to the public and get talk to the media. That’s me. That’s the public face. So my capacity to be in the field is good is getting lower and lower of course as you can imagine. But it’s okay because my team is incredible. It’s like. You know I just wish I could show you who they are because they are really, really incredible people not only in the field because we have our work. There is a lot of work to be done back home by our analysts connecting the dots. We have a couple of young analysts—crime analysts—working on the raw data so that’s altogether I think a dozen incredible people that and I’m just a face in front of them.
What message do you hope people take away from watching that film?
Richard Ladkani: Well, for me it’s always about hope and it’s about inspiring the next generation of activists and fighters to do something for the planet. What we want with this film is to inspire people and to put pressure on the Mexican government. Actually it’s already working. Our big goal was to premiere in Sundance because you get the loudest voice if you’re here and it worked. We had the standing ovations. The Mexican crew was here from Televisa. Carlos’s crew did a live special report from Sundance that aired on Monday. And he—at 7 AM a few hours later, the phone rings and it’s the Assistant Secretary of the Environment of the Ministry of Mexico. They were like, “What is going on? What is this movie? What’s happening?” They what they wanted to know what was it what is it about. “Did you really film vaquita—like a living vaquita so you’re gonna show vaquitas? You’re gonna tell about vaquitas here.”
We noticed wow, they are scared. They don’t know what’s kind of come. They are reacting and they are now in “Okay, we need a plan” because we better come up with a solution because once this film hits, the Mexican government obviously will be blamed for the chaos that it’s you know from the demise for letting this happen. We are now kind of giving them the heads up. Wwe’re telling them, Look this film is going to come. You see what’s happening already. It’s gonna be pushed hard in Mexico by Carlos and Televisa but also in the U.S. and everywhere. And you better get your shit together because we’re gonna be watching you. We’re gonna be reporting on you.
It’s great that it’s a new government because that they can they can start to do things differently. They can blame things on the old government if they want to. But they certainly know now that they have to act, which is exactly what we wanted.
So the whole plan of being in Sundance and having a loud voice. My G-d. Three days later, we’re getting a call from the Minister like “What’s this?” Oh my G-d. For me, another great thing to hear from this other filmmaker friend of mine. She watched it with her 16 year old son. The full next day, he didn’t stop talking about the film. He said, “I’m gonna join Sea Shepherd. I want to be like Jack.” He was so fully inspired by these young people who are fighting back who arenot letting this happen and how they think that we should be ashamed if we let this happen. Humanity should be ashamed. And it’s what we want.
I decided 10 years ago—I had the honor to spend about a year with Jane Goodall. I did a film with her called Jane’s Journey and she told me back then, “Richard you have a unique gift in terms of making movies and you can use that by reaching millions of people and actually not just make movies for entertainment but make movies to change the world.” That kind of took a while for me and it was only when we then started doing The Ivory Game that I put this into action and tried and we had a big impact. They were they banned the ivory trade in China very soon after the film came out. They invited us to China. We were opening the Beijing Film Festival and won it. We were received in a great way and we never thought that was possible. This is very empowering and i encouraging. I want to do more films about what’s happening to our planet but my next project, I want to talk about refugees and the crises we’re facing so it’s gonna be about no more animals in this one but about a huge crisis that is hitting us. I think it’s a great way to use to mix entertainment and message and actually feel better about yourself also because you’re giving something back.
Thanks again and congrats on the film.
Richard Ladkani: Thanks so much.
Andrea Crosta: Thank you.
Sea of Shadows held its world premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. National Geographic Documentary Films acquired distribution rights.
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