2019 Sundance Docs in Focus: SEA OF SHADOWS

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Richard Ladkani

Richard Ladkani captures efforts to save an endangered whale species caught in the crossfire of a lucrative black market battle.

Festival Section:
World Cinema Documentary Competition


Sundance Program Description:

The Sea of Cortez is facing total collapse because of a war at sea. Mexican drug cartels have discovered the “cocaine of the sea,” a valuable fish called the totoaba – which is at the center of a multimillion-dollar business with the Chinese Mafia. To find the fish, these cartels are destroying the ecosystem with illegal gill nets and, in doing so, are killing the Earth’s smallest whale – the vaquita. Local fishermen, caught between the tight grip of the cartel and fighting to protect their livelihood, find themselves in a desperate dance for survival. A dramatic documentary thriller, SEA OF SHADOWS follows undercover investigators, environmentalists, journalists, and the Mexican navy in their furious, last-minute efforts to rescue the vaquita from extinction and uncover this expansive black-market ring.

Filmmaker Richard Ladkani finds incredible access and paints a 360-degree view, capturing striking observational footage of the action to protect the Sea of Cortez, which Jacques Cousteau called “the aquarium of the world.” Saving the vaquita means saving an entire sea – and the critical balance of nature.

Some Background:

  • Richard Ladkani

    Ladkani, who also serves as the film’s director of photography, makes his Sundance debut with this project. His most recent film, THE IVORY GAME, was shortlisted for the Academy Awards.


  • Terra Mater Factual Studios’ Walter Köhler and Wolfgang Knöpfler

    The Emmy-winning Köhler is the CEO of Terra Mater, which he founded after three decades at Austria broadcaster ORF, while Knöpfler is executive producer of the company. They produced THE IVORY GAME.

Associate Producers:

  • Wild Lens’ Matt Podolsky and Sean Bogle

    Wild Lens is a nonprofit production company focused on wildlife conservation. Podolsky is the president and co-founder, while Bogle is the project director. This marks their first Sundance credit.

Executive Producers:

  • Leonardo DiCaprio

    The Oscar-winning actor has previously produced environmentally-focused documentaries through his Appian Way Productions company, including BEFORE THE FLOOD, VIRUNGA, and THE IVORY GAME, among others.

  • Appian Way’s Jennifer Davisson and Phillip Watson

    Davisson is president of production at Appian Way, through which she executive produced THE IVORY GAME. Watson produces nonfiction series and doc features for the company.

  • Terra Mater’s Dinah Czezik-Müller and Michael Frenschkowski

    Czezik-Müller is COO, while Frenschkowski is head of features and special projects at Terra Mater. They both worked on THE IVORY GAME, she as executive producer and he as line producer.

  • Rebecca Cammisa
    Past Sundance docs:

    SISTER HELEN (2002)

    Cammisa won the Sundance Directing Award for her debut doc feature, SISTER HELEN. She is a two-time Oscar nominee and an Emmy winner. Cammisa produces through her Documentress Films company.

  • Laura Nix
    Past Sundance docs:


    This is the latest project for Felt Films’ Nix, following the debut of INVENTING TOMORROW at Sundance one year ago.


  • Georg Michael Fischer and Verena Schönauer

    This is the first Sundance credit for both Fischer and Schönauer. The latter also cut THE IVORY GAME.

Why You Should Watch:
Ladkani demonstrates his eye for breathtaking observational storytelling in this remarkably well-produced investigative nonfiction thriller. The stakes are clear and heartbreaking, making the film an urgent reminder of the interconnectedness of humanity and nature and the crucial need for environmental stewardship before it’s too late.

More Info:
Sundance’s Meet the Artist Profile

For Sundance screening dates and times, click the film title in the first paragraph.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Recommendations, Sundance

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