All at sea

Eight documentaries to watch for World Oceans Day

by Jennie Kermode

Atlantic waves
Atlantic waves

Can you remember the first time you saw the sea? For some people it’s there from birth, often defining the way they live; for others it represents a sudden barrier. If you’re used to being able to go anywhere you want on foot, it’s an odd feeling to come to the edge. The ocean makes up four fifths of our planet’s surface. To the naked eye, it seems infinite, and we used to treat it as if that were really the case, but this year’s World Oceans Day is highlighting the fact that that’s not the case. United Nations special envoy for the ocean Peter Thomson has warned that a third of fish populations are being overfished and there is a real danger of mass extinction. As David Rasche warned at Cobie Smulders and Alexandra Cousteau’s Nautica Oceans City & Sea Party in 2015, plastic pollution has become a massive problem. If the ocean ecosystem collapses, it could easily take us with it.

The oceans give us fresh air and food. They provide millions of people with the means of making a living, they enabled us to travel huge distances even in our early history, and they continually reveal new secrets. These documentaries invite us to look at them in new ways.

Wonders Of The Sea 3D
Wonders Of The Sea 3D Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Wonders Of The Sea

Narrated by Arnold Schwarzenegger and featuring Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of legendary marine explorer Jacques Cousteau, along with two of his adult children, this documentary uses new filmmaking techniques to capture sea creatures rarely seen before. It’s also notable for Jean-Michel’s fearless interaction with sharks of all kinds, daring night dives among otherworldly phosphorescent plankton, and its optimistic message. Cousteau shows us some of the shocking damage that human endeavours have some but firmly believes that the oceans can recover if we just give them a chance - as he is fond of saying, "The ocean is forgiving."

Of Fish And Foe
Of Fish And Foe

Of Fish And Foe

Among the casualties of the modern fishing industry are fishermen themselves. For generations the Pullar family have made a living by stretching nets across the bay beside the tiny Scottish village where they live and collecting the salmon caught there, but now they are being squeezed out of business by big salmon farms. Though they protest that their way of fishing is more humane, they are also targeted by animal rights activists. Heike Bahelier and Andy Heathcote’s film looks at the different issues raised by each group and what it means for this family to lose its way of life.

Kon-Tiki
Kon-Tiki

Kon-Tiki

In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl decided that the best way to prove the theory that humans could have reached South Sea islands from South America in prehistoric times was to undertake the voyage himself using the kind of equipment they would have had available. He made this film along the way, partly as proof. It was a voyage full of danger and discovery, with no real hope of rescue if something went wrong. The film offered an extraordinary experience in its time, with some of the first footage of whales ever captured, and it remains fascinating today.

Blackfish
Blackfish

Blackfish

What happens to ocean-going animals when they are kept in captivity? The film, made in 2013, was instrumental in exposing the damage done to killer whales by keeping them in confined spaces with inappropriate company, and it eventually contributed to a change in policy at one major sea life exhibition centre. At its heart is Tilikum, who has since died, an orca who developed what seems to have been a form of psychosis and killed three of his trainers. Gabriela Cowperthwaite builds up a detailed portrait of his life along with extensive evidence of how little his captors knew about whales.

The Last Mermaids
The Last Mermaids

The Last Mermaids

A Special Jury Prize winner at Tribeca in 2009, Liz Chae’s enchantingly shot film gives the women of the Jeju Island in the Korean Strait the chance to talk about their histories and their relationship with the sea. A rare example of matriarchal society, this is a place where generations of girls have grown up to become skin divers, risking their lives by going as low as 45 feet without air in search of abalone. It’s a way of life that’s changing as new opportunities to earn a living emerge – something the islanders welcome – and this documentary depicts skills and traditions soon to be lost forever.

Sharkwater
Sharkwater

Sharkwater

When you think about people diving in warm waters, the chances are the you think of sharks, especially given the number of shark films out there depicting them as a deadly threat. In actuality, of course, it’s sharks who face a threat from humans – scientists estimate that we kill at least 100 million of them annually. This documentary tells their side of the story, demolishing popular myths, looking at their evolutionary history and importance to ecosystems, and also meets environmentalists who are willing to go to any lengths to defend them.

Leviathan
Leviathan

Leviathan

With no narration and no cutaways to shield the viewer from its most disturbing images, this is an utterly immersive portrait of life aboard a deep ocean trawler and is a film you will never forget. Like a nightmare vision of capitalism at its most monstrous, this mammoth ship travels through the deep seas looking for anything it can harvest and unconcerned by what is destroyed in the process. As it scrapes its nets along the sea bed it brings up creatures never captured on film before and we watch them as they struggle to comprehend their fate, watch fish struggle and die, all with a horrific intimacy.

Deep Blue
Deep Blue

Deep Blue

A visually stunning tour of the oceans which takes us from teeming coral reefs to the ice-lidded waters of the Antarctic, this is one for lovers of traditional nature documentaries. It’s full of beautiful underwater vistas and cute animals, though there are also scenes of predation which may disturb some viewers. Penguins, dolphins and turtles all get their due, and we take a trip down into the blackest depths to encounter strange, glowing creatures in a myriad forms. Without too much talking to distract us, this is a film you can simply sit back and absorb.

The United Nations is working towards getting 10% of marine areas protected by the end of next year. If we can go on to increase that to 30%, experts think that key ocean ecosystems can survive and we can move successfully onto sustainable fishing models before it’s too late. If you want to help, you can donate to the Marine Conservation Society, so that we’re not left with only films to tell the stories of the sea.

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