Film festival’s ‘Huntwatch’ aims to halt gruesome baby seal hunting practice

More than 35,000 baby seals were killed in Canada last year for their fur, part of a deeply entrenched industry that has become the target of a new film.

“Huntwatch,” a full-length documentary narrated by film star Ryan Reynolds that will be featured at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival, traces the last four decades of Canada’s seal hunt, the largest commercial hunt for marine mammals in the world.

The filmmakers say they want to shed light on an issue that many think is a thing of the past.

“A lot of people don’t know that seal hunting still goes on,” said producer Richard Moos. “It’s that lack of awareness that’s allowed it to continue flying under the radar. The more people know, the more it will have an impact to at least get the Canadian people — and hopefully the politicians — to look at this again with 21st century eyes.”

Canada’s commercial seal hunt has been around for the last century, according to Moos, with hundreds of thousands of baby seals killed for their fur each year. Most of the animals are 3 weeks to 3 months old.

And while the market for this fur has been in decline — particularly after the European Union banned seal products in 2009 — the Canadian government keeps the industry alive through subsidies.

“What it boils down to is that no politician can get elected without supporting the seal hunt,” said Moos. “The subsidy actually has no payoff, and they’re spending a couple million dollars propping it up when they could be spending that money on something else. Imagine if America was still whaling for oil that nobody needs or wants.”

These government subsidies are one of the big targets of “Huntwatch.” As producer Kerry Branon said: “The reason the hunt continues is because of government subsidies.”

“Huntwatch” relies heavily on the archival footage shot by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a conservation group founded in 1969 to stop the commercial hunt of seal pups in Canada.

The earliest footage focuses on Brian Davies, one of the founders of the group.

“His strategy was to bring media, press and camera people to document the hunt, and then he would reveal to the world how awful it was out there,” said director Brant Backlund. “He thought it would shut the hunt down because people would be outraged by what they saw.”

But as animosity between hunters and activists grew, these techniques were no longer feasible. So footage from the 1990s, which focuses on IFAW activist A.J. Cady, relies on “spy techniques” and “hidden cameras,” according to Backlund.

These archival shots are woven together with present-day, high-definition footage of the hunt from helicopters and interviews with people on both sides of the issue, including sealers and pro-sealing politicians.

One of the major challenges in creating “Huntwatch” was figuring out what — and how much — to show.

“It was a nonstop decision-making process of showing how bad it is but making it watchable,” said Backlund, who noted that the filmmakers cut away from the most gruesome parts of the bludgeonings. “What we tried to do is focus more on the characters involved in the story and also looking at the long-term battle: Why has IFAW been fighting for over 50 years, yet this is still going on? That was the story we focused on and the background is this brutality. We don’t show the gratuitous awfulness, but no matter what, it’s incredibly emotional.”

“It’s a hard story,” added Moos. “And you can’t tell the story without going to the ice and seeing what’s happening there. We want as many people as possible to see it, but we know it’s a tough sell.”

But the filmmakers hope “Huntwatch” can create change in the same way that other animal welfare documentaries, such as “The Cove,” which exposed dolphin hunting in Japan, and “Blackfish,” which revealed the brutal treatment of orcas in captivity, have in recent years.

“That would be the ultimate best thing that could happen,” said Moos, “that we could have something even close to the success that those two films had. This movie is the spiritual kin to ‘Blackfish’ and ‘The Cove,’ and we would be thrilled if we were somehow a small part in finally ending the Canadian commercial seal hunt.”



What: “Huntwatch”

When: Saturday April 23 at 12 p.m.

Where: Island Cinema, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach

Cost: $15