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Screentime of the ancient mariner

Paul Watson doc Eco-Pirate sets sail in theatres

Trish Dolman has spent the past decade making a film about a man who has dedicated his entire life to making waves. Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson, which opens in theatres this Friday (July 22), highlights the life and times of a pioneer of the radical environmental movement and one of its more polarizing figures.

"Paul is an extremely controversial person and I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for him, but he's also very, very complex," said the Vancouver filmmaker. "People tend to either really support him or really hate him."

Captain Watson was one of the original founders of Greenpeace who first sailed out of Vancouver in the early '70s, but he eventually split from the pacifist group in favour of a more direct approach to saving the planet and its oceans through his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose extreme tactics have involved ramming and sinking whaling vessels at sea.

"I'll do everything I can to protect whales and other beings of ocean, not for people but for them," says Watson in the film, which was voted an audience favourite at the 2011 Hot Docs film fest in Toronto. "You don't walk down the street and see a woman being raped and do nothing. You don't see a child being molested and do nothing and you don't see a whale being killed and take his picture and do nothing. That's just cowardice."

Part high-seas adventure, part narrative on the birth of environmental activism, Eco-Pirate follows Watson and his crew of like-minded nautical vigilantes in the Antarctic Ocean as they hunt down a Japanese whaling fleet exploiting a loophole in the international moratorium on whaling that allows killing whales for "scientific research" even though the so-called science experiments ultimately land in Japanese sushi bars.

Watson, 60, has previously been the subject of other films, including 2009's At the Edge of the World, and has since become a household name through the hit reality TV series Whale Wars. But Dolman manages to show a different side of the man behind the myth while treading similar waters.

"What I tried to do was do a film that was more in-depth, things about Paul and the history of the environmental movement that you may not know. I tried to delve deeper into Paul's personality and try to find out what makes him tick because he's quite a media-savvy guy."

The effect his 40-year crusade has had on his personal life, for example, is particularly revealing.

"Paul's single-minded dedication and commitment to his cause over everything else, including at times his own daughter and his family, does not come without a cost," said Dolman, herself the new mother of a three-month old boy. "He doesn't necessarily see it that way, but I think to most of us on the outside that there is a real human cost to that. I mean, he's been married several times, he was estranged from his brother for many years."

The film also touches on Watson's upbringing in an abusive household and, through interviews and archival footage featuring fellow activists Patrick Moore, the late Bob Hunter and others, details of his difficult split with Greenpeace.

Dolman will be available to take questions after the 7: 20 p.m. screening of the film tonight at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, as well as Saturday's 1: 45 p.m. matinee. Watson himself is currently en route to the North Atlantic to once again do battle with whalers in the waters off Denmark's Faroe Islands.

Twitter: @flematic