"The camera is the most powerful weapon ever invented."
Captain Paul Watson delivered this well-groomed line by phone to The Huffington Post while discussing a new documentary "Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist" about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
It was some 30 years ago when director Peter Jay Brown began filming Watson, Sea Shepherd group's founder, to publicize his fight to protect the oceans -- and whales, in particular. After Brown set off to film the group in 1982, he stuck with the group and now considers himself a member.
"Confessions" is his compilation of three decades' worth of Sea Shepherd's often controversial campaigns. This is a group that counts among its accomplishments activities like "ramming and disabling" a whaling ship as it tries to halt the hunting of whales and other marine animals.
Watson, who studied communications in college and likes to quote media theorist Marshall McLuhan, told The Huffington Post, "You have to utilize the media to get any message across, whether you’re selling Coca-Cola or running for president."
"We were the first generation to understand the media and use it to our advantage," Brown asserted.
"In the early days of Sea Shepherd, we considered ourselves like acupuncture needles," Brown said. "We were so small, all we could do was make a point and let the bigger groups come in behind us and get the job done."
Sea Shepherd staged multiple publicity stunts in Neah Bay, such as bringing in a mini submarine, that, in fact, had a major leak. "Perception in our world outranks reality," Brown says in the film. "Much like poker, a little bluff goes a long way."
Another stunt, shown in the film, involved plotting an arrest. "The media people wanted violence and weren't getting any," Brown claims in the documentary. "Their bosses were telling them to give up and come home."
Watson told his campaign organizer Lisa Distefano to trespass on tribal property, according to the film, which shows Distefano's arrest. "Someone managed to bloody her up a bit, which absolutely guaranteed her a spot on the evening news," Brown says in the film. The campaign is declared a success by Brown because "with so much media attention, there was no possible way the Makah could bring back commercial whaling as originally planned."
The Makah's tribal council states on its website, however, "The antiwhaling community is very well organized and very well financed and puts out a steady stream of propaganda designed to denigrate our culture and play on human sympathy for all animals. Perhaps what is lost in all of their rhetoric is an appreciation of the value of preserving the culture of an American Indian Tribe."
"Confessions" also shows how whalers in the Danish-affiliated Faroe Islands were targeted multiple times by the Sea Shepherd group because of their whale hunts, which involve villagers rounding up a pod of pilot whales and killing them.
During one campaign while dozens of journalists were aboard a boat, Sea Shepherd members "donned our survival suits, put on gas masks and set off smoke canisters for no other reason than to make pretty pictures," says Brown in the film. Activists planted underwater speakers off the Faroe Islands to give the impression that loud sounds would scare off the whales. The speakers didn't even work.
A Faroe Island whaling information website defends whale hunting in this manner: "The commonly occurring pilot whales are taken in the Faroe Islands for their meat and blubber in a whale drive which is organised on the community level and regulated by national legislation. This unique and traditional form of food production in the Faroe Islands has over the years successfully adapted to modern standards of resource management and animal welfare."
"A special whaling knife is used to sever the spinal cord, which also severs the major blood supply to the brain, ensuring both loss of consciousness and death within seconds," according to the Faroe Islands whaling information site.
Despite the efforts of Sea Shepherd and other groups, some countries still hunt whales. Japan, Iceland and Norway have also been targeted by the Sea Shepherd and other activist groups and governments for continuing to kill whales.
“They say the first casualty of war is the truth sometimes," Brown told HuffPost. "Paul Watson is backed by the truth. That’s his end. My end as a filmmaker is to make it exciting and entertaining so we can get the truth across."
"Whales were being killed, whales are going extinct," Brown added. "I just would try to get people interested somehow.”
SnagFilms plans to release "Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist" through video on demand channels on April 22. See a trailer from the film below.