An Interview with Filmmaker Rob Stewart (Part 1)
November 20, 2007

Filmmaker Rob Stewart freedives with a school of sharks. Photos:
Photographer/filmmaker Rob Stewart will never forget his first encounter with a shark. He was eight years old and free-diving in the Cayman Islands when he rounded a reef and found himself starring directly at the ocean's top predator. Steward was transfixed. Not by fear, but by awe.

"I was amazed, because it was so cool to see something so big and so powerful and so perfect." Over many years of encounters with sharks, Stewart came to realize that, despite their reputation, sharks prefer to shy away from people. Sharks are not man-eaters. Although they occasionally mistake humans for seals, after an exploratory nip, they will swim away to seek tastier fare. Unfortunately, a shark's "nip" can lead to the loss of a limb or the loss of a life.

But when you look at the statistics, Stewart says, it's clear that our cultural fear of shark attacks is overwrought. "The fact is that sharks do not eat people. More people are killed by soda pop machines than sharks," Stewart insists.

Sharks have dominated the depths for more than 400 million years, preceding -- and outlasting -- the dinosaurs. As evolution's top marine predator, the shark, over eons, has defined the character of oceanic life, compelling other life forms to develop schooling behaviors and other survival skills. The role of sharks in the health of the oceans is so critical that their disappearance would not only disrupt the balance of marine ecology, it would also trigger a series of events that could degrade the amount of breathable atmospheric oxygen that sustains all terrestrial life.

In the course of his work as a prizewinning wildlife photographer (whose work has appeared in National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, GEO Magazine and the Discovery Channel), Stewart became aware of the fact that, thanks to human encroachment, the planet's greatest predator had become mankind's prey. It became Stewart's mission to make a film that "shows sharks the way they really are, as beautiful and magnificent creatures that don't want to hurt humans. And to show how our fear has blinded us to the fact that their populations have been reduced by 90 percent over the last 50 years."

Listening to Stewart describe sharks as creatures who "don't want to hurt humans" leaves some listeners thinking "Here's a fish-hugger who's destined to go the way of 'Grizzly Man' -- devoured by the object of his wide-eyed admiration." But they won't have that impression after they've seen "Sharkwater."

"No one wants to save sharks," Stewart acknowledges. "People want to save pandas and elephants." But it's worth recalling that people used to believe that whales were vengeful, predatory "man-killers" that needed to be hunted down and killed by brave men hurling harpoons. Mankind seems to suffer from "Top Predator Envy." As a result, whales and sharks have become magnets for bad publicity.

Herman Melville bears some moral responsibility for the near-extinction of the humpback, minke and blue whales. And, when it comes to the public conception of sharks, there's Steven Spielberg. In his attempt to counter the sensationalist propaganda of "Jaws," Stewart spent more than four years amassing 400 hours of film shot in 15 countries. Some of the most compelling scenes in "Sharkwater" show Stewart wearing nothing more than rubber fins, breathing gear, and a wetsuit surrounded by dozens of sharks, playing with them, feeding them and, yes, even hugging them.

Stewart decided to make a documentary about the illegal finning of shares around the Galapagos Islands. But when he signed on for a four-month trip aboard the Sea Shepherd ship, the Ocean Warrior, his film took a sudden and dramatic turn -- one that lead to murder charges, armed confrontations, and death threats.

The Ocean Warrior sailed into Costa Rican waters at the invitation of the government, which had asked the direct-action conservation society to enforce laws protecting sharks. Shortly after entering the waters around the Galapagos, however, the Ocean Warrior discovered the Veradero, a Guatemalan ship, illegally using deadly and indiscriminate long-line nets to capture sharks. Stewart filmed the Guatemalans cutting the fins from the dying sharks and tossing their carcasses back into the ocean.

Sea Shepherd received orders to tow the Veradero to port in Costa Rica. But when Captain Paul Watson heard that Guatemala had dispatched an armed Coast Guard gunboat to defend the ship, he was forced to abandon the chase. Instead, the Ocean Warrior sailed to Costa Rica. Upon arrival, the crew was shocked to learn that they were facing arrest. The Veradero's powerful and influential owners had charged them with "attempted murder."

With a pound of dried shark fins selling for $300, it's not hard to see that the illicit shark-finning industry (a.k.a. the Taiwanese Shark Fin Mafia) had every reason to want to see Watson's crew locked up for good. Forced into an untenable situation, Watson decided to make a break for the open sea, chased by a boatload of Costa Ricans brandishing automatic rifles.

Sharks have dominated two-thirds of Earth's biosphere for 450 million years. Today illegal shark-finners, like the ones pictured above, threaten to drive the sharks out of existence within our lifetimes.
"While shooting this film, I encountered every obstacle imaginable, including a multi-billion dollar shark-finning industry that won't want this film released." Making this film nearly cost Stewart his life -- on more than one occasion. In order to reach Costa Rican waters and complete the film, Stewart had to sneak across the border. He was still wanted for murder and the Taiwan Mafia was still after him. Fortunately Stewart and his small crew made it safely back into the ocean and the footage he captured is breathtaking. Looking back, Stewart believes the risks and the pain will be worth it, just so long as the film "allows people to see sharks in a new light, and inevitably to care for their survival."

The-Edge caught up with the Toronto-born filmmaker Rob Stewart at the Larsen Associates office in San Francisco's SOMA district where he was in the middle of a grueling cross-country tour to promote his stunning documentary, "Sharkwater."

We began by noting the physical hardships he had to overcome to make the film, in particular a bout with "flesh-eating disease" that nearly cost him his leg and could have ended his life.

"I also caught Dengue fever, West Nile Virus and tuberculosis -- all at the same time," Stewart groaned. "That was way worse than the flesh-eating disease. For four months they told me I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and I was like, 'No. Trust me, there's something wrong.'"

Stewart settled into a chair and we started talking about the film.

GS: Did you find it frustrating working in this medium-- knowing how desperate the situation is, to have to wait through the process of editing and financing and shooting the film, knowing that sharks were dying?

RS: Yeah. It was enormously frustrating. At one point, we say in the movie that while I'd been in the hospital, millions of sharks were being killed. So to make this film over five years was a devastating for me during the process. I wanted to get the film done and get up there and have an impact quickly. And it was exceedingly difficult.

Nobody wanted a conservation film. I started making this film in 2002 and all the distributors and TV stations existed to put buns in seats, not to make people feel uncomfortable, because they'd turn off their television or leave the theater. So it wasn't until after I'd made the movie basically by myself and with my editors that we had a movie that was powerful enough so that everyone said, "Okay. We'll run this."

It became a good thing that it took so long to come out because it became a much more powerful story and a much better film that it would have been had I finished it on time.

GS: And it comes out on the heels of "An Inconvenient Truth" winning an Oscar.

RS: The time is perfect for it. It's an awareness issue. If people knew what was going on in the oceans. If 15% of North America knew that sharks were being wiped out and that sharks were important, that their populations have dropped 90%, if they knew that every single fishery will have entirely collapsed by 2048, things could change. But nobody has any idea. We don't see what goes on in the oceans because it's "out of sight; out of mind." If we could bring that into the forefront of the public consciousness like we did with whales and holes in the ozone layer, things could change.

GS: There was a moment in the film where you come back to Costa Rica and the officials at the port are asking you to turn over your footage which, of course, is the footage that will substantiate the fact that you were not guilty of the charges. And you say: "I don't have it. Somebody else has it."

RS: That was really a very lucky thing. I'd never shot a video camera before. This was my first shot at it. It was supposed to be a pretty underwater movie with no people. We collided with this fishing boat, I filmed the whole thing and I figured, because I had this mid-ocean collision and this pirate boat battle, that maybe I could "get this on the news." So as soon as I landed in Costa Rica, I FedExed all my tapes to my friends in Toronto and said: "Get this to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and get this onto TV somehow. We've got a boat ramming: this is news!"

Two minutes later, the Costa Ricans arrive and start searching the boat and I'm like, "Uh, I don't have anything. Really! Search all you want, I got nothing!" They made me play something like 150 blank HD tapes for them.

GS: I thought you were bluffing! That was quite a stroke of luck.

RS: Such a stroke, for sure. I think that's why I could stay calm because I could honestly say, "Don't have anything."

GS: The film has won numerous awards. Does this mean the Sharkwater organization is prospering?

RS: We're a conservation group like any other. We're really understaffed and underfunded. I mean, "Sharkwater" broke box-office records in Canada but you don't see any money until way down the line because the distributors take half, the theaters take half. So we're running a really lean ship where I'm working 20 hours a day.

GS: What was it that kick-started the pro-shark movement in Costa Rica? You came back and there were all these small kids protesting with their heads sticking out of little shark outfits!

RS: That was basically from all the publicity we created from being arrested. You know, we thought we'd done nothing right. We'd gone there, we'd collided with this fishing boat, got charged with attempted murder. We figured that our movement had been lost and we hadn't done anything right. And when we got back to Costa Rica, we realized that what we did was to awaken the country to the fact that there were these illegal Mafia-run operations that were destroying their own resources; that were killing there own tourism dollars, that were wiping out their national heritage in some of their most important places they've got.

It may have been bad publicity for us but it made people aware of what was going on and it resulted in this conservation group named Pretoma, which is actually suing the government of Costa Rica for the destruction of the resources that technically belong to the citizens of Costa Rica. And that resulted in the government of Costa Rica signing two decrees banning the private [shark-finning] docks.

They haven't enforced it yet. But they have signed the ban.

GS: Did any of your shark-finning footage get shown on local television?

RS: I don't think so. We gave that footage to everybody we could. We gave it to conservationists; we gave it to the government. I don't think it did ended up running anywhere. When we were getting charged, we gave [Costa Rican officials] the footage three different times and they lost it every time. They said: "We don't have it. Who did you give it to?" "Well, we gave it to you!"

GS: Is the media in the sway of the Taiwanese Mafia?

RS: Who can say? We have no idea. What's interesting is that things in Costa Rica have changed a little bit now that they know the movie's coming out. We've got the biggest motion picture distributor in Costa Rica releasing the film. On 75% as many screens as they'd be releasing "Shreck" or "Pirates of the Caribbean." It's a huge release and they're really excited about the controversy.

Continued. See Part 2.

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