Standing up for sharks

Torontonian Rob Stewart’s underwater polemic on the many enemies of the behemoths at the top of the ocean’s food chain comes on a little strong. Sharks are “perfect,” asserts his documentary Sharkwater, but the film doesn’t always back up that claim despite leagues of lovely, nearly Pixar-perfect ocean footage.

Stewart’s film takes us along on his personal crusade to protect the dwindling populations of the much-maligned shark. He refutes those who vilify the shark as a killer of humans, insisting that sharks do not, in fact, wish to eat us. He vigorously attacks those who would poach sharks in open seas and slice off their fins to make $100-a-bowl soup for corrupt and rich people. Though the character profile is similar to Werner Herzog’s now-deceased, bear-loving subject of Grizzly Man, Stewart isn’t out to romanticize a violent species.

He comes across as neither crazy nor needing to be accepted by brutal animals in order to somehow validate himself. Instead, Stewart hinges his arguments on a mixture of concern for the Earth — he contends that the unchecked decline of shark populations will create imbalances in ecosystems and ultimately affect all forms of life — and the personal ramifications of questioning fear and group-think.

Stewart succeeds in elevating his love affair with the shark beyond the personal, but as one thing leads to another, he becomes the unwitting star in an unfortunate soft-focus treatment of the shark crisis. There’s no shame in searching for great meaning in your filmmaking, but scenes of Stewart suffering in slow-motion are a bit indulgent.

Still, as a political piece, the film is largely successful. It reveals some unseemly sorts, like the Costa Rican shark-fin mafia, and as Stewart rails, physically and vocally, against the injustices done both out of willful crime and negligence (no one has any problem rising to the staunch defence of cute panda bears, he notes), his crusade slowly makes headway even in places where business and political leaders would like to silence him.

Stewart’s tale signals a real global danger — far scarier and more upsetting than the sight of blood in the water on a family beach day. But Stewart sees a magic about the shark that he can’t translate to the screen. In between undersea love-letter montages and wacky interviews with shark haters, there’s still something missing that the film doesn’t quite nail for all its attempts at effecting deep emotion for the sharks themselves.

Despite the film’s dodgy proposition that human frailties somehow make sharks morally unimpeachable, Sharkwater cuts well to its point: Though fearsome creatures, sharks lack a defence against large-scale ignorance and organized brutality — two traits that, so far, are specific only to humans.

Special to The Globe and Mail