By Connie Ogle
Rob Stewart’s visually stunning documentary makes a powerful statement about the disastrous decline of the world’s shark population and why it should — and must — matter to us. The Toronto-born Stewart who, not incidentally, is a good choice for poster boy of pretty much anything, introduces us with dazzling skill to an undersea world not of dread and menace but of beauty.
Sharkwater explains how sharks are vital to the food chain and marine ecosystem and offers fascinating insight into the creatures (Stewart has to keep his heart rate low around the shy hammerheads because they sense his excitement and flee.) The film also effectively debunks all sorts of ridiculous myths — that they swallow humans whole, for example — which persist mostly in our imaginations (thanks, Steven Spielberg). Every year, the film assures us, soda machines kill more people than sharks do.
Stewart’s love for the ocean and what lives there fuels the first part of Sharkwater, which dives into deeper, angrier territory when Stewart and his crew encounter a fishing boat illegally long-lining in an area where the practice is banned. Trying to save 60 miles of dying sharks galvanized the filmmaker, leading him to join forces with renegade environmentalist captain Paul Watson, who will do just about anything short of pulling a weapon to deter poachers.
Their clashes with corrupt fishermen and government officials are riveting and terrifying — if you think swimming with sharks is frightening, try spying on the Taiwanese mafia’s illegal shark-fin export business — and ultimately inspire Sharkwater viewers with a righteous anger akin to Stewart’s fury. Shots of dead carcasses piled helter-skelter on a pier should fire even the mildest soul.
“It’s not just about saving sharks,” the filmmaker eventually realizes. “It’s about saving ourselves.” With Sharkwater,Stewart may have strong enough material to save both.
Director/screenwriter: Rob Stewart.
Producers: Brian Stewart, Rob Stewart.
A Sharkwater Productions release. Running time: 91 minutes. Scenes of animal cruelty, thematic elements, language. Playing at: area theaters.