Australia’s latest award-winning movie thriller? A documentary featuring Hollywood star Dan Aykroyd as the voice of whales, and pitting a “morally bankrupt” practice against Sea Shepherd mavericks in the Southern Ocean.
Defend, Conserve, Protect is built on intense, behind-the-scenes footage of 2012’s Operation Zero Tolerance, the most successful mission ever for marine conservationists Sea Shepherd.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve found something worth dying for,” is the tagline of the movie, which won best international feature at the 2019 American Documentary Film Festival.
One big question it asks is whether the activists are hell raisers or heroes.
Driven by a passion for the environment, the mostly volunteer crews put their lives on hold to journey out to sea in four vessels, Steve Irwin, Bob Barker, Brigitte Bardot and Sam Simon.
In Defend, Conserve, Protect, they then put their lives on the line as they engage in an incredibly dangerous game of cat and mouse with an often aggressive Japanese whaling fleet.
Funded by lay people and celebrities including The Simpsons co-developer Sam Simon and narrator Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters), Defend, Conserve Protect follows the Sea Shepherd vessels as they track the Japanese whaling fleet lurking in Australian waters near Antarctica over four months.
Their mission: Hamper Japan’s efforts to refuel its immense whaling vessels via their accompanying fuel supply ship, Sun Laurel, by literally sandwiching Sea Shepherd’s half-sized boats in between.
Japan’s fleet included the 800-tonne mothership Nisshin Maru.
It was dubbed the ‘Death Star’ as captured minke whales were slaughtered aboard and ‘boxed up’ for delivery back to Japan for sale, even though the whaling was officially for ‘scientific’ purposes.
In truly adrenaline-packed scenes, Nisshin Maru’s captain rams Bob Barker with sickening crunches as its captain Peter Hammarstedt holds his ground and his crew’s euphoria plunges into fear.
Director Stephen Amis (The BBQ) spent two years wading through thousands of hours of footage captured by cameras on the main vessels and smaller, nimble inflatable craft to create what he calls an “emotional, hard-hitting” film.
“The film is about activism and the importance of activism. That doesn’t mean you need to be radicalised. That is a completely different thing,” Amis told The New Daily.
“The film is very much about people power. It is framed from the activists’ point of view, the point of view of the crew and that gives the film its emotional punch.”
The experience was “terrifying” says Eliza Muirhead, a photographer on the campaign and now director of communications for Sea Shepherd.
“Everyone who comes on board knows the risks they are facing,” she said.
“[But] I was surprised on the Zero Tolerance campaign the Japanese whaling fleet were as aggressive and it was as dangerous as it was.”
Amis personally bankrolled the film and raised $104,000 through crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.
Star Aykroyd stepped up to provide the voice of the whales gratis in a rather unconventional narration style.
“Dan is a really huge environmentalist and a big Sea Shepherd supporter,” Amis said.
“I really wanted to create this magical realism voiceover for them and to get the idea across they are very social creatures and similar to humans.
“No one should be out there slaughtering that kind of animal.”
Over 12 campaigns in the Southern Ocean, Sea Shepherd claims to have saved 6000 whales.
Japan was banned from whaling in the area by the International Whaling Commission, but on July 1 officially withdrew from the IWC, the next day slaughtering two minke whales off Japan’s northern coast.
Amis hopes Defend, Conserve, Protect will inspire audiences to climb aboard, in a sense.
“About 10 months ago the UN came out with a pretty dire environmental report that we have about 12 years to turn things around,” Amis said.
“To do that we are all going to have to step up and become activists and for me that is what the power of this film is.
“I want the audience to come out feeling uplifted, inspired and feeling like they could step out of their comfort zone and make some kind of environmental change to the world.”
Defend, Conserve, Protect is now screening in selected cinemas