Toronto Sun Review

April 21, 2008

Save the sharks, save the world.

It is not, of course, that simple and elegant. But Canadian diver, eco-activist and filmmaker Rob Stewart is on a mission. He is linking the survival of sharks with the health of the oceans.

he threat of extinction — Stewart estimates that 90% of the world’s sharks have been decimated by human exploitation or through wanton, fear-based destruction — is one indicator of how the ocean ecosystem is under dire stress. That, in turn, threatens human life on the planet because so much land life is linked to the oceans.

“If we can get people to have empathy for sharks, that is a huge step!” Stewart tells Sun Media. “And what else can we get people to have empathy for?”

Stewart, who is based in his home town of Toronto, spent five years filming the documentary Sharkwater, getting up close and personal with thousands of sharks. He almost died doing it, but it was not because of any shark attack, because that never happened to him.

Instead, Stewart suffered a life-threatening illness during the shoot — it is dramatized in the personalized storyline of the film — and he also came under gunfire in Costa Rica — when he and another eco-activist, Paul Watson, pushed their save-the-sharks agenda in a hostile environment in Costa Rica.

Stewart’s film gives away its mission statement in its subtitle: The Truth Will Surface.

The film, which made its world premiere at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, was released in Canada and the United States in 2007. Now it has made its DVD debut in North America, linked to the Earth Day celebrations.

Sharkwater is also expanding its theatrical distribution on an international scale. When I talked to him, Stewart was just checking into a Paris hotel on a promotion tour for the release in France.

“We’ve got a huge release coming in France and also in Germany,” he says. “I’m hoping that, once it comes out in theatres in Europe, and once the DVD is in wide distribution, there will be enough awareness that it hits a critical mass.”

Before the European launch, Sharkwater played in North America, Singapore, Costa Rica and the U.K., Stewart says. “But the biggest market for this movie is DVD and television.”

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary with Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, demonstrated that a documentary film can have a major impact on public consciousness. Before it emerged and went on to win the Oscar as best documentary feature, docs seemed to create just ripple effects, informing the public but rarely galvanizing them into action on a mass scale. But An Inconvenient Truth, which chronicles Gore’s take on the climate crisis, hit like a tsunami. It is the symbol for a worldwide environmental movement devoted to the issue of greenhouse gases and human responsibility for them and the potentially catastrophic effects they might have.

Stewart is hoping that Sharkwater can have the same impact on his issue.

“Absolutely! If we had even 10 to 15% of North Americans who knew what was going on in the oceans. If they knew that there are 54 billion pounds of fish in the oceans while eight million people are dying of starvation. If they knew that we depend on life in the oceans every day, and yet we drag huge nets (across the ocean bottom) destroying every animal in the ecosystem, including sharks. If they knew that the very air we breathe comes from the oceans.

“If they knew all this, then they would fight for this and take a stand like they’ve never taken a stand for anything else. We just think people don’t know about it.”

That is why he has taken up filmmaking, bringing his love, respect and knowledge of sharks to the screen. “For me as a conservationist, and as a human, the greatest difference that I can make is through making movies — because then you get millions of people seeing it. You get a whole world of attention. You get all the awards and it becomes something quite big. And I think it’s become the most effective way to gain awareness.”

In Sharkwater, Stewart shows how beautiful and graceful sharks can be in their own environment. People marvel at the staggering beauty of many of the underwater film sequences, which were shot in high definition video, making the Blu-ray DVD even more striking than the standard DVD release (the Blu-ray version also contains more bonus materials than the regular DVD).

But, for all their beauty and the awe they inspire when filmed by someone such as Stewart, people still have an irrational fear of sharks that is out of proportion to the actual danger they pose. Fatalities are rare.

“When they come to see you,” Stewart says of encountering sharks while diving, which he has been doing since he was a teenager. “You have nothing to fear because they are interested in food, not you. Which is why, when they do bite us, let usually let us go.”

Yet media reports still create a fear-frenzy when there is a shark attack anywhere in the world, especially one that involves serious injury or death. “It’s ridiculous,” Stewart says of the media response and the exaggerated image that sharks are crazed killers and that all sharks are man-eaters.

While each serious incident is a tragedy, each is also an accident, Stewart says.

“But the good thing is now, every time a shark bites somebody, they call me to talk about it. What is good about it is that people want to hear my side of the story. I still cringe (at each media frenzy). It is absolutely ludicrous the way sharks are portrayed. But the more we can get me in the media, the better off we will be.”

That truth, he says, will surface.

There is another myth Stewart would like to discount — that documentary filmmakers get rich off their wares in the manner of Hollywood movie stars.

At a recent Q&A for Sharkwater, one viewer asked if Stewart was donating his “profits” from the film to any conservation groups. But there are no profits, yet, he says. Far from it.

“Okay, I’m in a $2 million hole,” he says of the red ink on the project to date. “If we do end up with some profits over the course of the decade that it might take, I’m going to use them to make movies, to do the same thing we¹re doing with this.”

It is nearly impossible to generate profits for a doc because of the way distribution works for a modest film like this one, Stewart says. Too many others take their share before “profits” are passed on to the filmmakers.

“There are a lot more sharks in filmmaking than there are in the oceans!”

That has not, of course, prevented him from launching his next film. It is also going to be an environmentalism documentary. It starts shooting in July. It will serve as a welcome relief for Stewart, who has been on a punishing promotion schedule for Sharkwater for almost two years.

“For the last two years,” he says, “I haven’t done anything creative. I’ve been a businessman and a PR person and I’ve talked and I’ve been the face of this movement from the movie.”

The new film will broaden the scope of his mission. “It’s about our overuse of the planet,” he says. “Most of the ecological disasters (which environmentalists warn people about) are all coming to a head in the next 40 years.

“So we need a revolution with humanity, like we had for the end of slavery or for women’s rights, but on a much, much bigger scale. And that’s what I’m trying to inspire with the movie.”

Even with his shark obsession, Stewart says he already has a perspective on the big picture.

“It’s not sharks that we necessarily need to worry about. Sharks have seen life on earth rebuild from scratch five times, you know. The ecosystem and the species, they’re going to be fine. It is simply a question of human existence on the planet, and whether we survive, that’s the biggest issue.”