Sharkwater (2007) dir. Rob Stewart
Who knew sharks were so misunderstood. This is what director/underwater cinematographer Rob Stewart wanted to get across when he started shooting his documentary. The final film Stewart ended up with is not what he imagined. “Sharkwater” is both a beautifying underwater nature film about sharks as well as a tense and suspense journey into international politics and seedy black marketeering.
The best documentaries are often the ones that don’t go according to plan. Errol Morris’ “Thin Blue Line” was a happy accident – a case of false imprisonment discovered while researching a death row psychiatrist. Andrew Jarecki discovered his story of “Capturing the Friedmans” while doing a documentary on New York City clowns. While “Sharkwater” is still about sharks and not clowns the pleasant surprise is how Stewart is forced to put himself into his film.
In the opening Stewart tells us a lot about what we don’t know about sharks. First of all, they don’t eat people. Some statistics tell us how rare shark attacks are, and when they happen it's not for food. And even less rarely are people killed. Secondly, they’ve been at the top of the food chain evolved in their present form since before the dinosaurs! But now in the last half century sharks have been hunted down and killed with such efficiency they're threatened with extinction.
One of the world’s delicacies (especially in Asia) is Shark Fin Soup – basically, tasty soup with a real shark fin placed on top as a garnish. It adds nothing to the taste, just a symbol of the strength and guile of the shark. Stewart hooks up with the infamous “eco-warrior” (some would say eco-terrorist) Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to document the search for the illegal ‘finners’ who ply the oceans for sharks, capture them, cut off their fins and throw them back into the water to die a painful death. The footage of this process is downright horrific and cruel. And so when Watson starts to engage violently a group of Costa Rican finners it becomes a truly anger-fueled ocean battle. Stewart captures some astonishing footage of the two boats, crashing into one another and even firing sprays of water to help sink their boat.
Things go off schedule when Stewart and Watson are thrown into a Costa Rican prison for their actions. Their flight from jail is equally adventurous.
And so the film becomes more than just a film about sharks – a story of Stewart himself, a passionate conservationist and his fight for his beliefs. It helps that Stewart is likeable and engaging. With his boyish good looks he could be pegged as a 19 year old. He’s probably in his 30’s, but still a remarkable achievement.
There’s no doubt some stunning underwater photographer. A pristine Blu-Ray version of the film is available. Of course, we see underwater high-definition stuff all the time on the Discovery Channel, but Stewart makes his footage and his story big screen worthy.
Watch for the final shot which rolls over the credits. It’s one of the most astonishing unedited pieces of film I’ve seen. Stewart is being dragged just below the waterline presumably by a speedboat. The camera is mounted in front of him to capture astract imagery of the water rushing by his face with great force and speed. The shot has seemingly nothing to do with the film, but upon reflection is a clever thematic metaphor of the journey Stewart goes through to save his beloved sharks. Check it out.