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Newfoundland's 'dirty little secret' revealed: Hot Docs 2021 film explores what lurks under the ocean around the province

·3-min read

There's a "dirty little secret lurking under the ocean of Newfoundland and Labrador" and the documentary Hell or Clean Water, part of the 2021 Hot Docs festival, reveals the problem by telling the story of the one man who is trying to fix it.

With the harbours of the province full of tires, car batteries, bottles, fishing equipment and more, Shawn Bath started his mission to clean the ocean alone, starting the Clean Harbours Initiative in 2018.

Bath initially met filmmaker Cody Westman when he reached out with interest of doing a short video to showcase his work, but after Westman discovered he had removed 15,000 pounds of trash from the ocean by himself, the movie's director knew there was a larger story to tell.

"I knew that it would make a good film...and I called him, I told him what I had in mind, and sort of how big it was going to be," Westman told Yahoo Canada. "I made him tell me a few times before we moved forward, I said, are you sure this is what you want to do because we're not just going to follow you around for a month, we're going to follow you for at least a year."

"I think he was just taking every opportunity he could get but it was definitely more than he bargained for."

Hell or Clean Water (Chris Crockwell)
Hell or Clean Water (Chris Crockwell)

'Shawn is, self admittedly, part of the problem'

You may initially think that Bath is a long-time environmentalist but looking back 10 years ago, he was one of the people polluting the ocean.

"Shawn is, self-admittedly, part of the problem," Westman explained. "He used to throw trash out the window, he used to throw trash in the ocean."

"Every fisherman that we met said that they did the same as well... One guy said he thinks Shawn has thrown more in the ocean than anybody else, and I'm like, well don't you think that he's done far more than his part of cleaning that up now?"

Hell or Clean Water
Hell or Clean Water

Hell or Clean Water isn't a hugely science-forward documentary, it's more of a heartwarming tale that follows Bath's personal journey, including his massive financial struggle as he tries to keep his one-man operation afloat. Bath reveals near the beginning of the documentary that he only had $9.07 in his bank account and creditors were constantly asking for money.

"I care about the Earth and I've been following the plastic issue for a few years...but I didn't really know anything about what was in our local water," Westman said. 

"I guess the surprise would just be that most people that we talked to admitted it,... Didn't he ever realize that that's where your food source comes from? But the beauty is that everybody admitted and everybody knows better now, and we were actually following somebody who was trying to do something about it."

While everyone Westman spoke to admitted the problem exists, the filmmaker did reveal that it was very difficult to actually find fishermen who would participate in the making of the documentary.

"Only one fisherman agreed to talk to us...every other fisherman declined," Westman said. "Most people don't want to be on camera...for any reason, much less sort of talking about waste."

For anyone who watches the documentary, in Canada and beyond, Westman hopes that the audience sees that one person can make a difference and inspire others to do the same.

"I think that this is a universal story, it just takes place in small town Newfoundland," he said. "If there's anybody around the world who sees it and gets inspired to go and start their own version of it, or reach out to Shawn,...that would be fantastic."

"It's totally OK to make mistakes, we do it all the time in our life, but it's how you learn from them and how you act in the future that really is important."