For filmmaker Rob Stewart, exploring sharks began as an underwater adventure. What it turned into was a beautiful and dangerous life journey into the balance of life on earth. Driven by passion fed from a life-long fascination with sharks, Stewart debunks historical stereotypes and media depictions of sharks as bloodthirsty, man-eating monsters and reveals the reality of sharks as pillars in the evolution of the seas. Filmed in visually stunning, high definition video, Sharkwater takes you into the most shark rich waters of the world, exposing the exploitation and corruption surrounding the world’s shark populations. Stewart’s remarkable journey of courage and determination changes from a mission to save the world’s sharks, into a fight for his life, and that of humankind.
We had the honor of sitting down with Rob Stewart to talk about the film, his experience making it, and what people can do to help save the sharks.
How would you describe Sharkwater to someone who hasn’t heard about the film?
Sharkwater is a film about man’s relationship with sharks. It interweaves a crazy story of corruption and espionage, attempted murder, hospitalization, machine guns, and mafia rings all into a true life adventure about how sharks are being exploited to the point of extinction and nobody knows and nobody cares, because everyone is afraid of them.
Why was it so important to you to make this film?
It was really important to me because sharks are being killed all over the world and nobody knew and nobody cared largely, because everyone was afraid of them. I realized that the shark population has dropped 90% in the last 30 years. It’s going to be a huge problem for people if sharks do get wiped out, because sharks control the population of animals in the ocean that give us 70% of the oxygen that we breathe. So we’re killing our own source for survival. It’s not just about saving sharks any longer, it’s about saving people.
Are you scared of sharks at all?
No, I was scared of sharks as a kid though. I met my first shark when I was 9, and it was afraid of me. Every other shark was afraid of me too, so it sparked my fascination and made me want to know more. I ended up starting to dive with sharks quite a bit. I took my parents and a lot of my friends diving with sharks as well. We spent 200 days a year underwater shooting Sharkwater, and we never had a problem with sharks. As you see in the film, people are way crazier than sharks are.
Are there certain situations where people need to be more careful around sharks? Is there a certain kind of situation that could evoke an attack that people should stay away from?
Well if you’re underwater and you’re diving with sharks and you have food to attract them to you, you’ve got to be alert. If you’re feeding them by hand, you need chain metal gloves and that kind of thing. For swimmers, there are millions and millions of swimmers that swim in the waters every year in areas where sharks hunt, and 60 people are bitten every year. So your chances of being bit by a shark are so small. That number actually makes sharks the least harmful animal of any of the large predators of planet earth. Areas where there are river mouths, or the water is murky and the shark can’t exactly tell what you are, that increases your chances of being bitten. Even to worry about though, is crazy.
Did you do basically everything in the film yourself? I know you directed it and shot a lot of it yourself right?
Yeah, when I was 22 I set out to make a pretty shark film, a film that gave people a new impression of sharks. It wasn’t supposed to have any people in it. When I started, I was a wildlife photographer. I’d never made a film. Everything just changed dramatically while we were making the film. By the time I came back I had this crazy story, but I had no shark footage. I was also $300,000 in debt trying to make this movie. So I had to figure out how I was going to put this together, because I was a first time director and massively in debt. No one wanted to give me any funding. I ended up having to do quite a bit of it by myself.
Was doing it all yourself the most challenging part of making the film?
That was really challenging. I guess the most challenging part was convincing people to believe in me. I started this very young, and this was a very ambitious project. I ended up giving up on the movie at one point, moving to Australia, and shooting another movie with another friend of mine. I put Sharkwater on the back burner. I kept saying that I would do something with it at some point, because there was really nothing more I could do since I had been turned down by everyone. So I had massive up’s and down’s in that respect. This movie has been 6 years thus far, and I have never done anything for 6 years. I haven’t had a girlfriend for 6 years, I didn’t go to one school for 6 years, and I’ve never been in one place for 6 years. So the movie is a lot of my adult life, and it has massively shaped me as a person.
Was there a certain scene or a sequence of scenes that were the most challenging for you to shoot?
Beautiful shark footage was pretty challenging. The thing about being underwater is that they really are so afraid of you, so you’ve got to spend an enormous amount of time underwater, hanging out, and hoping that they come anywhere near you. They have to get comfortable with you, so that they will come up to you so you can film them. That was challenging.
Other than that, a lot of the scenes were challenging to shoot, because all I knew was how to take pretty pictures. I didn’t know how to shoot a story or shoot different angles. I had to learn everything as I went along. My whole film school was my girlfriend bought me a book called the “5 C’s of Cinematography” and I had two movies on my laptop, Snatch and Amelie. So whenever I got into a bind, I’d watch one of those movies and try to figure out how they shot something and try to shoot the same way.
A lot of the most compelling parts of the movie just happened. When we were running from the Coast Guard with machine guns in Coasta Rica, it was difficult to shoot, but it was all over in a couple of hours.
Now is there a certain area of the world where they are killing sharks more?
They’re killing sharks in every country with a coastline. The biggest demand is from China, so Chinese waters don’t really have any sharks in them right now. The biggest shark finning countries are Spain and Indonesia.
What can people do to help?
The biggest issue right now is awareness. People don’t know what is going on in the oceans, because they can’t see it. Out of sight, out of mind. An elephant gets killed in Africa for its ivory, and the world goes crazy, but 100 million sharks get killed every year and no one notices, no one cares. So, it’s largely an awareness issue. Any revolution that we’ve had has been lead by an informed public. The ending of slavery, women gaining rights, holes in the ozone layer, cultural /racial equalities, all of those were lead by the public who knew what was going on. Because of that, when legislation was proposed, it was implemented. The biggest thing is to talk about the issue. Even if people don’t like the movie, talk about the cause. Talk about what is going on in the ocean.
Every year, we waste 54 billion pounds of fish while 8 million people die of starvation. Every single fishery will have entirely collapsed by 2048. 90% of all the larger animals in the ocean are already gone. We’re in a seriously crucial time. Humans have never faced an obstacle like this. The biggest issue on the planet right now is conservation. It’s changed from saving trees to saving pandas to saving people. We really need people talking about it.
Aside from that, people need to be talking to members of government, local members of government, anyone in a position of power in the government that you can. Once government bodies receive a certain amount of inquiries about one issue, they have to bring it up in a larger forum. So pressuring the government, not eating shark fin soup, being conscious of the seafood you eat, these are all things that you can do. A lot of seafood is incredibly wasteful. Shrimp fisheries for example waste 85% of what they bring to the surface, it’s thrown back in to the ocean dead, killed, it’s bycatch. So just be conscious of what you’re eating.
Do you have any other upcoming projects right now?
Yeah I do. I’m doing a film about how people are going to survive the next 100 years. I’m trying to inspire a revolution like we’ve had in the past for ending slavery and racial equality. I’m trying to get people a blueprint for what we need to do to get out of this situation we’re in.
Do you know when that will be coming out?
Yeah, it will be 2010. Now that I know what I’m doing and I have partners, I don’t have to do everything myself. So it won’t take 5 years [laughs].
Interview By: Emma Loggins