Sharkwater documentary debunks evil Jaws myth

Filmmaker dives into mystery

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Rob Stewart

SHARKS ARE A MAN'S BEST FRIEND. Documentary filmmaker Rob Stewart debunks media perceptions of sharks as man-eating monsters in Sharkwater.

In popular culture, there is a creature that has been stigmatized, wrongfully associated with evil for many a decade and forced to endure a market-based purgatory of hunting and maiming with no real social consideration.

The elusive shark, an ancient creature who rules the domain of the sea, has been portrayed in films like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea as a menacing, unpredictable creature to be feared, avoided and destroyed.

And then came Sharkwater. Cue the epic music, for this movie truly changed the way these grand fish are represented in the media in a real-life, unrestrained and pretty damn entertaining manner.

The film was written and directed by Rob Stewart, a Toronto native who pursued many avenues of insight into sharks " from academics to photojournalism " until resolving to make a documentary film in 2002. At age 22, Stewart dropped all occupational responsibilities and set out to visually dispel the myth of the shark " a four-year venture that would take him through 15 countries, a pirate network and run-ins with international law.

“Sharks are essential for global survival,” Stewart notes. “Most people don’t see that connection. Life depends on life, and there is a four billion year-old ecosystem in the ocean that is being severely damaged because of what people are doing to the shark population.”

Stewart’s film deconstructs the myth of the shark with visuals of these passive, beautiful creatures interacting with divers and the film crew as though they were merely another extension of their environment. Its relative size renders the creature both awe-inspiring and terrifying and popular media has exploited this dynamic to the detriment of the animal.

“The thing about sharks is that they’re the sum of our fears,” Stewart muses. “They live in a deep, dark ocean that we know so little about, and they control that foreign space. Because of that uniqueness, they’re susceptible to our phobias.”

Stewart employs astounding visual techniques to document and highlight the passive nature of the creature in his film " an illustration that plays well against the stubborn and cruel nature of illegal poachers as documented in the film.

He is only too aware of the effects shark hunting has on the ocean’s ecosystem. Removing a large portion of these predators caused an upswell in other species of fish, which has wiped out entire populations of shellfish and destroyed century-old fisheries. Likewise, much of this shark hunt has nothing to do with human necessity, but instead is based around misguided tradition and mythology about shark meat and vitality.

“Shark fin soup [a dish in Asia] is a delicacy based on texture alone, and 75 per cent of people don’t actually know it has shark in it,” Stewart says. “Yet as many as 38 million sharks are killed annually for their fins, with their remaining carcasses relinquished to the sea.

“I wanted to generate awareness on these issues, and I have enough faith in humanity that people will respond to the movie and take a stance, which we’re seeing now with the youth demographic in Asia.”

Stewart, as a young filmmaker, is the perfect candidate to speak to a new generation on this issue, even if this wasn’t his original intent.

“I wasn’t supposed to be in the film, but when we got charged with attempted murder [after accidentally colliding with a fishing boat in Guatemala], we decided to film ourselves to keep us out of prison,” Stewart emphasizes, which snowballed into his role of leading the audience through this impressive saga.

His presence in the film infuses new life into an aged genre.

“[By] having somebody younger tell a story who’s not Al Gore or Michael Moore, you get kids and youth who don’t care about documentaries and the environment,” Stewart explains. “We stumbled upon something that just might work.”

This documentary is an inspirational work sure to generate awareness for our marine companions and their place in our ecosystem.

The award-winning documentary is available on DVD on April 8.

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