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Swimming in ‘Sharkwater’ with Filmmaker Rob Stewart

[IMG:L]Sharks get a bad rap–but Rob Stewart wants to change all that.

With the brilliantly filmed Sharkwater, the first-time documentary filmmaker, a former underwater wild-life photographer, explores the depths to show us a kinder, gentler animal. These predators of the sea are on the verge of extinction due to the horrendous effects of long-line fishing and the practice of shark finning, in which sharks are killed simply for their fins, a delicacy in the Asian fish market.

Merely showing us the beauty of these animals isn’t all Stewart faced in making Sharkwater. The first-timer also had to endure a human drama, in which he–along with a conservation team—were arrested on attempted murder charges in Costa Rica and eventually fled for their lives. To add insult to injury, Stewart was also waylaid with a flesh-eating disease that nearly took his leg. But four years later, his determination paid off—and Rob Stewart is here to tell us the plight of the one sea animal he loves best.

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Hollywood.com: When did you realized the shark’s story needed to be told?
Rob Stewart:
I was working as a wildlife photographer, and I took a photo assignment to the Galapagos Islands. As a kid, I was sort of a fish nerd, loved them, so I was so excited to go to the Galapagos to shoot the hammerhead sharks who supposedly school there. When I arrived, after spending days to get there, I found about 160 sharks either dead or dying on a long line. And that sort of opened my eyes to the fact sharks were being wiped out. If they are being killed in military-protected green reserves in Ecuador, then in all the unprotected areas, it must be much worse. I guess that was in the inciting incident that drew me into making the movie.

HW: Do you think Jaws was a contributing factor to the shark getting a bad reputation?
RS:
It was totally a contributing factor. It was such a good movie but it’s just a shame they united the world behind a bad view of sharks. After Jaws, in Australia, they just starting killing sharks. Any shark over six feet. And they caused the virtual extinction of a few species. One species is called the Great Nurse Shark. They have big teeth that hang out of its mouth, but they are designed to eat fish. They have never bitten a human being ever. There is only 300 of them left. There aren’t many Great White sharks left either. The thing is, the endangered species list becomes a popularity contest. Cute and cuddly animals like pandas get on there way before sharks do. The only sharks on the list are the Great Whites, the whale shark and a couple of others. They are the most recognized.

[IMG:R]HW: What is the biggest misconception we have about sharks?
RS:
A lot of people think they are just mindless predators, and they just drift around the ocean hunting anything that moves. The reality is totally different. They have two more senses than people: They can sense movement in the water through lateral on the sides of their bodies. And they also have senses on the underside of their snouts that can detect electromagnetic fields. They can feel your heart beat, feel the electromagnetic field of a fish. So they are highly sophisticated animals. Sharks use all of their brain. It’s smaller than ours, granted, but we only use a fraction.

HW: And when sharks do bite a human, it’s usually a mistake, right?
RS:
They are looking for something else, yeah. The proof of that is that the shark doesn’t continue to eat the person. They bite and they realize they got something they didn’t want and let go. That’s why flesh is rarely ever removed. They’ve been in the oceans for 400 million years, eating good tasting fish and stuff. They don’t need us.

HW: What about sharks continually surprises you?
RS:
How shy they are. They are so totally different than how they are portrayed in the media. Why it took so long to make the movie is because it’s really hard to film sharks because they are just so scared of us. You need special breathing equipment or even holding your breath, you got to stay still. It’s very difficult to get them near you. They are skittish and because they are predators, they are risk averters. If you injure a gazelle, it feeds on grass and could continue get healthy again. If you injure a lion, it would never be able to catch its food and would die. Predators have to stay pretty cautious, and the same goes for sharks.

[IMG:L]HW: How did you put Sharkwater together, being you never made a film before?
RS:
I winged it, really, sort of just went for it. I had spent a year trying to get the word out on how endangered sharks were by magazine articles—and they didn’t have the impact I wanted. I realized it was because everyone viewed sharks as dangerous. People realized they were being wiped out but no one really cared. And I couldn’t give people that emotional connection with sharks, so I figured if I could make a movie, I could get people to love sharks the way I do. And I thought if I can take pretty pictures underwater, I could take pretty motion pictures underwater. So I was just banking on my ability to take pretty pictures to make a pretty underwater movie. There wasn’t suppose to be any land stuff in it, it was suppose to be just sharks.

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HW: I know. Things got really crazy for you.
RS:
[Sharkwater] took quite a turn. I tried to make a movie about sharks and end up getting charged with attempted murder and kept filming to keep us out of prison. So when I came back from shooting the first part of the movie, I was expecting to have all this underwater footage. But what I got was this crazy human drama with very little shark footage. That was the point where I had to become a filmmaker because I had to figure out the story and put it together. And I didn’t know any of that, so I had to stumble my way through the process. My supervising editor was basically with me for two years. He was the guy who’d say, “OK, we are missing a lot of stuff here…” So I’d rent another camera, hop on a plane, shoot the footage and come back. I basically learned movies beside him.

HW: Was your family frantic for you to quit when it got really bad?
RS:
Yeah, I think they said they aged a decade in those three months I was first filming. When we got arrested in Costa Rica for attempted murder, they were like, “Fly home NOW!” Then we ending up running and then when I was in the hospital and they thought they’d have to amputate my leg, that was the worse. My family and girlfriend at the time, everyone was saying come home, it was a failure, this filmmaking thing isn’t going to work. But for me, it was my one shot at it, to try to make a difference.

[IMG:R]HW: What did you tell yourself to keep going?
RS:
There were a few things. One, was the fear of going back to Canada and being a few hundred thousand dollars in debt with no movie, photographing fish for the rest of my life to try to get out of debt. The other one, the movie had such potential to do good, that I knew the world hadn’t heard this before. And if the world had a different view of sharks, we could save them. Save the oceans and keep people on the planet for longer. So I think [Sharkwater’s] potential kept us going to see it through to the end.

HW: Are you happy Sharkwater is getting released at this time, with the whole environmental movement on the rise?
RS:
Yeah, absolutely. The world is finally sort of waking up to it all now, which is brilliant. The theme of the movie is that everything that seemed a negative at the time, turned into a beautiful positive. So it sucked that I got a flesh-eating disease and we got arrested, and that I had to wait so long for distribution in the U.S., but it all turned out good in the end. Now, the eco movement is so hot, and the world is just ripe for another one. They need to know the truth and they are getting another twist on it. Sharkwater is such a crazy story and a different movie that I think it’s the perfect anecdote.

HW: From the time you starting filming until now, what has changed for sharks?
RS:
Oh, it’s changed dramatically. When we starting making the film, we knew that 100 million sharks were being killed every year. And only five countries had banned shark finning. Now there are 24 countries that have banned shark finning, but stats show that as of four months ago, 93-99 percent of the sharks in the Atlantic are gone. Situation keeps getting worse and worse.

HW: Do you have hope the sharks will not become extinct?
RS:
I do have hope, yes. That’s what we made sure we put into the movie: hope. But the situation looks pretty grim because 90 percent of the world’s large predators are gone in the ocean. Every single fishery around the world are supposed to entirely collapse by 2048. And we waste 54 billion pounds of fish every year, while eight million people die of starvation. It’s not working out.

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[IMG:L]HW: That doesn’t sound very hopeful, Rob!
RS:
I think the hope lies in us, being so highly evolved. We’ve have been able to evolve in the past and recognize our faults. Like saving the whales. Whales were once seen as sea monsters and then the public perception changed and wham! We had an international whaling commission and we saved them. And I think we can do the same thing with sharks.

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