Moviegoers have been trained to fear sharks, the apex predator with the fathomless eyes who seems 90% teeth, ever since Steven Spielberg’s aquatic horror first jawed its way onto the silver screen. Canadian filmmaker, conservationist and self-confessed “fish nerd” Rob Stewart sets out on a quest to re-brand the shark; to explore and showcase their depth, intelligence and even playfulness; to see them not as vicious monsters but as creatures deserving of our respect and protection. Stewart points out that the beloved elephant kills 200 humans every year; the shark five. If they wanted to eat us, he argues, the ocean would be a much more dangerous place than it is. He dives safely with these fish, even stroking them. Apprehensive about diving with a new species for the first time, he afterwards declares them “sweethearts… intelligent and cheeky”. These are not words usually associated with sharks and it is arresting.
This informative and raw documentary opens with mesmerising underwater shots of Stewart diving, the camera rolling until the ocean bed becomes the sky and the undulating threshold of the water is beneath. This is a metaphor for his mission statement: to change perspectives. The filmmaker informs viewers about the shark fin industry, fuelled by the Chinese appetite for shark fin soup, worth a billion dollars a year, and the devastating effect it is having on sharks and the ocean ecosystem as a whole.
Sharks have survived over 450 million years but in the past 30 humans have managed to decimate their numbers by 90%. Stewart positions the argument for change to appeal to our inherent selfishness. Banning the shark fin practice is necessary for human survival rather than being a worthy, altruistic cause. Ecosystems are delicately balanced and removing the top of one will have catastrophic effects.
The film is edited for maximum impact. The mesmeric quality of the serene underwater shots are cut to barbaric and upsetting footage of sharks being mutilated for their fins and mercilessly thrown back into the water to die. We don’t normally see these fish like this: their implacable weave in water, so majestic and terrifying, is transformed out of it, where they are vulnerable and disorientated. There is footage highlighting the wanton and needless destruction of life.
This is a moving, powerful documentary, not least because Stewart died in a dive off Florida in January 2017, aged just 37, and Sharkwater Extinction was finished by his loved ones as an elegy to his life’s work and passion and a love letter to the man. One hopes his work wasn’t in vain. On the strength of this film, it surely wasn’t.
Sharkwater Extinction is released in select cinemas on 22nd March 2019.
Watch the trailer for Sharkwater Extinction here: