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Hot Docs: N.L. man tries to inspire world to clean the 'hell' out of the water

HALIFAX — Shawn Bath says he was only looking for a 30-second commercial about his efforts to clean up the harbours of Newfoundland and Labrador when he approached filmmaker Cody Westman in 2019.

HALIFAX — Shawn Bath says he was only looking for a 30-second commercial about his efforts to clean up the harbours of Newfoundland and Labrador when he approached filmmaker Cody Westman in 2019.

But after Bath told Westman he had removed more than 15,000 pounds of garbage out of the water himself, the pair embarked on a much larger project.

“I ended up with an hour-and-28-minute commercial, I think,” Bath said with a chuckle during a recent interview.

Bath, 49, from Twillingate, N.L., is the main character in a new documentary, "Hell or Clean Water," directed by Westman and set to premiere virtually at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 29.

The film describes Bath's struggle to get funding and manpower to clean up the mounds of garbage sitting at the bottom of nearly every harbour on the province’s coastline.

“I’ve seen everything that mankind didn’t want,” Bath says in the beginning of the documentary, after he suits up to go on a dive. “When you’re diving on these wharves, government wharves, especially the older ones, it’s like somebody built a wharf in the dump. That’s what the bottom looks like.”

Bath first dove for trash in 2018, slipping five or six tires around his arms from the ocean floor and bringing them back to shore. He graduated to using ropes and chains to fasten the garbage to his truck and haul the refuse onto land.

The documentary features Bath one year after he started his one-man cleanup operation, using his skills as a former sea urchin diver to collect trash from the ocean floor, including car batteries and toxin-leaching wood.

The film explores Bath's struggles to collect enough money to grow his non-profit, called Clean Harbours Initiative, to be able to manage the colossal task of cleaning up harbours filled with decades of garbage.

“It's kind of a David and Goliath story, in a way,” director Westman said in a recent interview, about his year and a half filming with Bath.

Though the film tackles the global issue of ocean pollution, it's also meant to explore an individual's struggle to achieve a goal.

"I'm not trying to solve the world's problems," Westman said. "I'm trying to follow one guy who's trying to do something in his own backyard."

The film describes Bath's personal financial problems, such as his bank balance of $9.07 — a result of pouring nearly all of his own resources into his work.

"We need to have at least one crew in Newfoundland doing cleanups every day," Bath said. "There's enough trash here to last for a hundred years."

Bath said it would take a five-person crew eight to 10 days to do a thorough cleanup of a single wharf in a harbour.

He said he wants people who watch the film to appreciate the scale of the garbage infesting the world's oceans.

"Based on the documentary, you know I can't afford this, right?" Bath said with another chuckle. "But I knew I could afford to bring the awareness to it and I figured if I could do that, then I'd get people on board with me."

Westman echoed the sentiment, saying he hopes people learn from the documentary that one person can make a difference.

"Maybe, hopefully, this film will inspire somebody anywhere in the world, in any port in the world, to go and do the same thing that he's doing," Westman said. "I mean, why not?"

Bath said he sees himself as a first "domino" that will topple over another, that could go on to topple another.

"If we can get everybody doing a little, everybody contributing a little, then we could make a major change to our oceans," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press

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