Friday, September 28, 2007

Sharkwater - Film Review


Today was opening day for the documentary film "Sharkwater" by Rob Stewart. I got there for the 3pm matinee to get a jump on the Friday evening movie crowd. I watched it at the Baywalk Muvico theater in downtown St. Petersburg. Overall, the movie was better than I'd expected.

Sharkwater has some of the most beautiful underwater cinematography I've seen in any film, beginning with the beautiful, graceful kelp waving in the current and stretching toward the surface, and continuing with colorful and mesmerizing schools of fish, and plenty of sharks, turtles, and rays. It is a beautiful film to watch.

However, along with the beautiful underwater scenery you will be watching the cruel and wasteful practice of shark finning: catching sharks, cutting off their fins (for soup), and throwing them, often still alive, back into the water to sink to the bottom and die. There is a big Asian market for shark fin soup and it is nearly equivalent to the drug trade in profits. Stewart takes the cameras onto shark finning boats and into hidden shark finning operations in Costa Rica to expose the often illegal, but tolerated practice. Just like in the drug trade, the high profit potential attracts organized crime, official payoffs and bribes, and disregard for regulations, which are already nearly impossible to enforce in international waters.

The focus of the film is on the problem of wholesale shark slaughter and how so little is being done to stop it. Rob Stewart and his crew team up with the Sea Shepherd organization to try to stop Costa Rican shark finners on the high seas, only to be thwarted by the Costa Rican government, which was more interested in protecting profits from the illegal shark fin trade than enforcing the laws. Stewart also makes a trip to Asia, where the shark fins are in such high demand. I have to tell you, it isn't pretty to watch, nor is it easy to listen to some of the ignorant statements made by those defending such gratuitous slaughter.

Rob Stewart clearly has a penchant for adventure and the film has its share of suspenseful moments, especially considering it is a documentary, a fact that we are unable to escape, given the continuing narration by Stewart. Some reviewers have been critical of the fact that Stewart constantly uses the word "I" while narrating, and takes a distracting detour to cover his own misadventure with a dangerous staph infection in his leg.

I'm going to cut Stewart some slack and say that this film is a fabulous and compelling documentary, especially when considering it is Stewart's first. It was filmed and directed by Stewart. Yes, it could have been much more than it was. I thought is was weak on science. For instance, Stewart and others interviewed in the film talk about how sharks are a necessary part of the food chain, and eliminating them will have serious consequences, right down to upsetting the balance of plankton. I would have liked to have heard more specifics on this. (This made me think, could the decline of shark populations be somehow be related to algae and red tide outbreaks in the Gulf of Mexico?) There is so much more to be said about sharks and shark behaviors and how we relate to sharks.

The statistics and pleas to "save the sharks" at times seemed a bit cliche, a situation that was made tolerable by the powerful cinematography; I mean, when you are watching Asian and Costa Rican fishermen hacking the fins off of live sharks, you really don't need the statistics anyway.

Another reviewer remarked that Stewart portrays the ignorant fishermen as "the lowest form of ignorant, poor short-sighted rednecks, always looking for an easier way to make a buck, no matter how destructive." I don't think Stewart really portrayed the fishermen that way at all. He just filmed them doing what they were doing. His criticism wasn't of the fishermen, it was of the industry. The fishermen, by and large are just poor people trying to make a living. As long as there is an industry, there will be fishermen to work it. It is the industry and those who allow it that Stewart portrays as ignorant, greedy, and short-sighted.

Yet another reviewer writes: "the film's merits are compromised by structural and conceptual flaws." Maybe for a professional film critic the merits are compromised, but for me, the film succeeds admirably despite some structural and conceptual flaws.

You know, it's just nice to watch a film done by someone with passion, who doesn't resort to distorting facts, or make slanderous remarks, or create staged circumstances for dramatic effect. It's not a Hollywood production, thank goodness. It's just a good, honest film.

While much of the narrative didn't live up to the cinematography, I was particularly taken by the observation that several people in the film made regarding how future generations of humans will have little respect for prior generations who destroyed what was not theirs to destroy, and will see us as barbarians, much like we now view those who practiced, and still practice in some countries, slavery. And that change doesn't come from governments and institutions, but from small groups and individuals who dare to take action.

To me, the greatest thing that most people can take away from this film is that sharks are not the evil killers they have been portrayed to be. I would add this: the group of humans that far and away suffer the greatest number of shark bites is surfers, yet surfers are the humans least fearful of sharks. Surfers are subject to the same Jaws movies, the same media hype as the rest of us. But surfers let their enthusiasm for the water overcome their fears, and they discover that the sharks are not out there hunting us.

Go see the film. Anyone over 12 should see it.

If you are a diver, a surfer, a fisherman, a beach lover, a sailor, a naturalist, a conservationist, or just someone who wants to be informed, you will enjoy it double.

Be sure to check out the film's website and enjoy the film clips and trailers. It's beautiful.

Sharkwater, the documentary.

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