Sharkwater Rob Stewart

Sharkwater Rob Stewart
If you hear Rob Stewart talk about his film in hindsight, it’s almost as if Sharkwater lost the original plot completely. Taking the reins directing, starring and narrating, the Torontonian should be in complete control of his subject, but it’s quite the opposite once he embarks upon his mission. Imagined as a straightforward scenic doc for the Discovery Channel, Stewart’s plans quickly went awry when he got into the thick of this five-year project. On paper, Sharkwater is a lesson in teaching humans about the monsters they’ve become — but it’s so much more than that. Equal parts educational film, exposé and surprisingly, action/adventure movie, this Canadian-made doc follows the struggle of a shark lover who just can’t take no for an answer. Spending the first portion of the film explaining his passion for sharks and balancing it with informative facts and ignorant public perception, the film does an about-face during Stewart’s first-hand trip to Guatemala and Costa Rica to protest detrimental shark-finning operations. There, he joins conservationist Paul Watson aboard the Sea Shepherd, a massive tanker known in international waters as a pest with a tendency to ram do-badders in the name of nature. It’s nothing Greenpeace isn’t doing right now but Stewart captures it all on tape, documenting everything from the illegal activities to being arrested and seized by authorities to being run out of the country by the machinegun wielding Coast Guard. The footage he managed to capture is nothing short of remarkable, be it the serene moments underwater free diving with sharks or the covert imagers of precious shark fins within the mafia-run industries. As thrilling as it all sounds, Stewart knows not to lose his objectivity in all of the fuss, and his message that only we can save a species the planet needs in order to survive is delivered loud and clear. Plus: "making of” featurette, marine archive footage.

It’s not apparent in the film but how long did it take you to make?
Stewart: I’m six years into it right now. The actual creation of the film ended up being five years because we did end up doing more and more stuff as we were going.

When it began did you think it would be such a grueling process?
No, man. I thought I was gonna make a pretty shark doc for Discovery that would take me three months, and then I’d come back and decide whether I wanted to be a photographer or filmmaker. Six years into it I’m in France, I just got back from Germany, I’m going straight through to L.A., then to Italy — yeah the tour isn’t even near done.

There are some amazing dramatic turns in the film. How did that all change your original concept?
It was supposed to have no people in it. I was an underwater photographer — I had never made a movie, never shot a video camera before, never done sound, nothing. I was thinking, ‘Okay, I can take pretty still photos underwater, maybe I can take pretty motion photos too. And that’s what I was banking on.
By the time we came back from filming we had corruption, espionage, attempted murder… I didn’t even think that would be part of the original movie, I thought that would just be our DVD special features. It took me a while to get the film off the ground and then I realised what had actually happened to me was the most compelling story I could tell. All of that stuff does relate to the cause by showing you how much money and corruption is involved in the shark-finning industry.

So, it was pretty far from the Discovery Channel doc you were planning.
The farthest thing possible.

What was the biggest challenge for you?
Well, I actually gave up on making Sharkwater once. I cam back from shooting the movie and had virtually no shark footage. I had the arrests for attempted murder, corruption and stuff, and I had Dengue Fever, West Nile Virus and Tuberculosis. So I came back and broke up with my girlfriend, moved in with my parents in Toronto, tried to figure out what the hell I was gonna do, 1) with my life, and 2) with this silly movie I made.
I started pitching it, going to al of the big film fests around the world to get the movie off the ground. I got turned down by everybody — everyone from Discovery to National Geographic to all of the distributors — nobody wanted to take a chance on a first time filmmaker. So all hope was lost. I had no choice, so I went out and shot another movie. At one of the fests someone saw that I could shoot pretty footage and hired me to shoot a starfish movie. So I did that for a year in Australia under the deal that I could keep any footage that I shot for my own project.
The hard part was the whole process of making the movie. I got turned down by everybody, so every step of the way I had to become the filmmaker and learn how to tell stories, learn how to become an editor, learn how to become a writer, learn how to become a director and convince people that this movie was something they needed to buy.
Running from the Coast Guard? Nothing. Being arrested? Nothing. Catching those diseases? Nothing. All of these things paled in comparison to making the movie.

Sharkwater goes to lengths to educate, but I’m wondering what the most important thing you learned making the film?
That it’s not about saving sharks, it’s about saving people. We often think we’re trying to save sharks or the rainforests. Sharks have seen life on earth rebuilt from scratch five times. Sharks are gonna be fine. Rainforests are gonna be fine. It’s whether people are gonna survive. Over 54 billion pounds of fish is wasted every year while eight million people die of starvation, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our relationship with the natural world isn’t working at all. And it’s gonna mean our own demise unless we take serious action.

Why do you think sharks aren’t a major concern in the world?
People don’t care whether sharks live or die because they’re afraid of them. On the other hand, the bigger issue is awareness. People don’t know what’s happening in the ocean, they have no idea. But no one is bringing it to their attention either because there is so much money in the exploitation side of it. So, the 54 billion pounds of fish being wasted while eight million people starve is just the tip of the iceberg. Every single fishery will collapse by 2048 unless the U.S. government fixes it. And this is concerning all things in the ocean, not just sharks. We’re just stripping the ocean every day. If you took a bulldozer to a forest and killed a few deer people would take a stand. But every day we drag these big nets through the ocean and destroy every animal in the ecosystem. So, why it’s happening is because it’s not on our front door step.

As much as I’m a fan of the film, I can’t help but think Jaws has a lot to do with the problems sharks are facing these days. Do you agree?
Well, when an elephant gets killed for ivory in Africa the world goes fucking crazy. But elephants kill 150 people a year; sharks kill five people a year. We kill 100 million sharks and nobody even notices. And I think that’s largely because of Jaws. The world is scared of sharks. After that movie came out everybody was terrified of swimming even in a lake.

From what I’ve heard, sharks weren’t that much of a concern before the movie and even book came out.
People never see sharks! When you swim in the ocean you never see a shark. You have to try hard to find one. It really shouldn’t be the general public’s concern but it became their concern and fear. One of the biggest phobias is being killed by a shark.

Did you ever meet Peter Benchley before he died?
No, I never got to meet him, but I did get an award from his wife: The Peter Benchley Shark Conservationist Award.

Since your film was released, have you heard of any other countries banning shark-finning?
The whole European Union.

And what is Canada’s stance on it?
We banned shark-finning. Actually, John Baird, Minister of the Environment, came and watched Sharkwater next to me in a movie theatre. He promised me that sharks would become his new campaign, that he’d do everything he can to save sharks. And since then he’s done dick all!

That sounds about right to me…
They’re actually one of the worst because they have fisheries for the Porbeagle shark, which the whole world is trying to list as an endangered species. But every time they go to a convention to list it, Canada champions [the fisheries] and battle the [protestors]. They rally anybody they possibly can to oppose the listing. Even though I had 30,000 people on that wanted the Porbeagle shark listed, and John Baird got 2700 phone calls, nothing happened. The U.S. changed their vote! It’s crazy. And there is one boat fishing for Porbeagle sharks.

What organisations do you recommend for those looking to get involved or learn more about protecting sharks? It’s sort of a "choose your own adventure” deal with a number of different ways to get involved. (Alliance Atlantis)