It's hard out here for a top marine predator

Vanessa Farquharson, National Post
Published: Friday, March 23, 2007

First it was camels, then penguins. Now, thanks to a Toronto biologist-turned-filmmaker, the latest animal craze hitting the big screen is sharks. They may not be very cute or easily made into plush toys, but they've got over 400 million years of work experience on their resume and, despite a reputation for being vicious killers, are actually quite shy. Some of them don't even have teeth and only nibble on plankton. Aww.

But as Rob Stewart -- the 27- year-old writer, director, cameraman and star of Sharkwater -- solemnly reminds his audiences, the world's shark population has been drastically cut by at least 90%. In fact, while we were sitting here on our lazy butts doing nothing other than watching this film, another 15,000 sharks were killed.

"The one animal we fear the most is the one we can't live without," Stewart narrates, in what is a precursor to a lot of dramatic rhetoric about how we wouldn't be able to breathe without sharks because of their role in the food chain and subsequently the ecology of the ocean and therefore the oxygen it gives off. Or there's the line about how he and a Greenpeace crew were arrested in Costa Rica for "trying to save sharks," when more probably they were arrested for crashing into another boat and attempting to sink it.

The melodramatic diction can be forgiven, however, as Stewart is not only the most earnest filmmaker and activist you'll ever meet, he also had no clue how to make a documentary when he began this project -- initially, he just wanted to hang out underwater and take pretty pictures of his favourite animal.

And it helps immensely that, in the words of Zoolander, Stewart is "really, really good-looking." Sojust when viewers start to think he's pushing the non-fiction envelope, it cuts to a shot of him gyrating through the water in a Speedo or crouching on the ocean floor hugging a shark to soothe any critical response back into submission.

But what makes this a truly exciting documentary (no, that's not an oxymoron) is that it has all the now-or-never urgency of something like An Inconvenient Truth, but instead of the dull slide show we get crazy Aussies who go on spitting rants about how evil sharks are, or a doctor diagnosing Stewart with a flesheating disease that may require amputating his leg, not to mention undercover footage of Taiwanese mafia finners frantically trying to hide the tens of thousands of shark fins they have drying on a private dock.

nd, of course, anything can happen in international waters, especially when notorious shipdisturber and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson is at the helm of Stewart's boat. At one point, when they're being chased by machine-guntoting coast guards for fleeing Costa Rica before their court date, Watson hollers, "Tell 'em to shoot -- we're not stopping now!" and full- throttles it. This is way more exciting than drowning CGI polar bears!

Though Stewart may not have had any previous experience in documentaries, he did somehow know that aside from entertainment value, a good doc also has a bit of humour, most often in the form of outdated educational or training footage. And he certainly stumbled upon a good one -- a black-and-white instructional video for the army, with a segment on how to avoid a shark attack. Step one: Put your face in the water, blow bubbles and yell really loudly. Step two: tear up a piece of paper (because you'll obviously have one handy) and toss the bits around.

Stewart's real forte, though, is photography. From the stunning shots of over two dozen hammerhead sharks to the adorable little girl protesting in a makeshift shark-head hat to the super-cool closing credits, where it appears he's filming himself being dragged through the ocean by a boat, the cinematography here is top-notch.

Unfortunately, this makes it all the more depressing when, for example, his lens focuses on a shark being finned alive, its eyes still blinking as its carcass gets tossed back into the water and simply sinks.

There's some half-hearted reassurance at the end of the film in the fact that longlining in the Galapagos has been banned and that their abandoned court case in Costa Rica led to public protests. But it comes a little too late -- by this point, audiences will be so riled up, they'll drop their solar panels and compact fluorescent light bulbs and start banging on the doors of every restaurant that dares serve shark-fin soup.

Rating 3 1/2
Vfarquharson@nationalpost.com
National Post 2007 Communications Voir inc. All rights reserved.

Review Sharkwater