Shark attack!

Today’s documentaries, like Sharkwater, are meant to rouse us to action (and get us back into the water again)
Jay Stone, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Sunday, March 25, 2007
The new documentary Sharkwater is as much a plea as a movie.
It was made by naturalist Rob Stewart to protest the devastation of the world’s shark population and to persuade us that our view of sharks is wrong. They are not killing machines; they are beautiful, ancient predators that are mostly benign (the movie includes footage of Stewart in the water, hugging and patting sharks).

Pop machines kill more people every year than sharks do; tigers and elephants are responsible for 100 human deaths a year, compared to five a year for sharks. People rally around creatures such as pandas because they are cute, but sharks are essential: At the top of the underwater food chain, they kill the fish that eat plankton, which provides most of our oxygen. As such, sharks are the enemies of our enemies. Still, we hunt them down.

Sharkwater is thus positioned as another in a series of documentaries designed to rouse political action. The points it raises are very photogenic — Stewart is an expert marine cameraman — but at heart they are didactic. They could have been made in an op-ed article (which Sharkwater sometimes sounds like).

However, that wouldn’t have had nearly the power that the movie does. It is telling that one of the reasons we hate and fear sharks, according to the documentary, is the effect of the 1975 classic Jaws, a powerful and unforgettable drama that kept people out of oceans (and, in some cases, out of swimming pools) for years. Jaws demonized the fish; it was essentially a horror film with a great white shark as its monster. Sharkwater seeks to undo this image. It does so in the way it was done in the first place: through the movies.

In its use of the power of film to create emotional connection, Sharkwater is like another film, An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore documentary about global warming. That was an issue we had known and talked about for a decade or longer, but through a propitious collision of timing and mounting evidence, it took a documentary — not a sexy one, admittedly, but a movie nonetheless, a medium that uses images rather than the written argument everyone seemed to have been ignoring — to propel it to centre stage.

Gore, the U.S. president-unelect, was once mocked for claiming that he invented the Internet, but in a sense he invented the idea of global warming. He made a movie about it.

Politically minded documentaries like these have a long history, but it is recently that they have taken on this new importance. They have become cinematic billboards, tackling issues we don’t see anywhere else, or in ways that affect us more deeply. The poster boy for this kind of culturally charged documentary is Michael Moore, who has attacked the Bush administration (in Fahrenheit 9/11), the American gun culture (in Bowling For Columbine), large corporations (in Roger and Me), and other targets in rabble-rousing documentaries that have won awards and made Moore perhaps more famous than is comfortable.

A new documentary called Manufacturing Dissent, by Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine, looks at Moore’s tactics and concludes he is sometimes guilty of manipulating the facts, just as his right-wing critics have always charged. Still, much of the public perception of Bush or of the weapons industry comes from Moore’s work; in 2004, Fahrenheit 9/11 became a rallying point for anti-Bush sentiment, and if it wasn’t a turning point for those feelings, it certainly helped push things along.

Like Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, another agenda-driven film whose sudden impact was the culmination of years of slowly growing perception, it picked among competing images for those that would most clearly make its point (it’s interesting that all these movies, including Sharkwater, feature scenes of the film-maker becoming closely involved with his subjects or associating himself so closely with the issue that he becomes its spokesman.)

One of the most interesting cases of the documentary as agenda-setter involves March of the Penguins, the 2005 hit that earned $77.5 million and was the keystone in an entire sub-genre of films in which penguins appear. They had been popular characters before — a modest success, The Pebble and the Penguin, came out 10 years earlier — but March was the apex of a penguin explosion (The Wild, Madagascar, Happy Feet, the upcoming Surf’s Up). Interestingly, Happy Feet went on to be attacked by U.S. conservative commentators as propaganda for global warming, putting penguins on the same side of the political spectrum as Al Gore. I love it when a plan comes together.