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LAist Interview: Rob Stewart, creator of Sharkwater

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In a year of great documentaries, Sharkwater resides in the very top tier. It is a passionate advocacy film about the immense slaughter of sharks currently going on in the world's oceans. Sharks are caught in 60-mile long lines, have their fins cut off and then are simply dumped back in the ocean to rot. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the film's writer, director and narrator, Rob Stewart.

You originally started out planning to shoot more of a pure documentary about sharks in the wild. Can you talk about the moment when you decided to go in a different direction?

Basically I was trying to make a beautiful, underwater art film and in order to get to the most shark-infested waters in the world I teamed up with Sea Shepherd. Three weeks into shooting we collided with a fishing boat and were charged with attempted murder in Costa Rica, and we started filming ourselves to keep ourselves out of prison. I guess, five weeks into shooting we still hadn't been underwater yet. We'd just filmed ourselves running from countries and running from mafia rings and all that. So by the time I came back from that shoot, I had virtually no shark footage, but I had this crazy human drama.

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So how did you hook up originally with Sea Shepherd? How did that connection first take place?

Well, I went to the Galapegos. I expected to photograph hammerhead sharks in all their majesty underwater. But I found 60 miles of illegally set longline instead. And I spent the next eight months after that trying to get the word out that sharks were being wiped out using magazines and print media and photo stories. After eight months of doing that, I set up a fund with the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapegos Islands so that people reading the articles could donate money directly to putting a patrol boat in the Galapegos. At the same time I was trying to get his patrol boat there, Sea Shepherd donated a patrol boat to the Galapegos Islands so I got in touch with them, figured out they were about to launch this campaign and jumped on.

You guys had some issues with the authorities in Costa Rica. Is that still an existing issue? Can you go back there?

We actually have the biggest motion picture distributor in Costa Rica distributing the movie, so he's actually really excited about it. He thinks he's going to get a lot of controversy and a lot of public support. And actually at the same time they're launching the film in mid-November, there's a conference on sustainable fisheries in Costa Rica that's being held by WWF. So it'll be quite an embarrassing thing. They actually want to bring me down for the PR tour, and the government wants to give me bodyguards. There are no charges remaining against me. There are still charges remaining against Paul Watson. But I don't know if I'm going to go yet.

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I can imagine it would be a little scary. There's some tough customers in the Taiwanese Mafia.

Yeah. And that would be our main worry. I mean, the government said they won't arrest us. We're not entirely confident that they won't. I think we could create a bit of a PR stunt out of it if we bring a camera crew. See if I get arrested again.

Yeah, I would almost say go back to the same locations that you saw the first time and see what's changed, if anything.

Well, the government actually signed two decrees--one in January and one in February banning the private docks. But even though they've signed those decrees, they still actually allow the finning and they allow the private docks. They actually want to put things in our movie that say these things happened during the last government and not during the current government. We've said we'll only put that in the movie if you actually do ban the private docks.

Right. If you actually enforce the law.

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Yeah, you got it on paper, but you've got lots of great things on paper.

What's the current status regarding some of the issues raised in the film? Are there areas of optimism? Are there areas of deeper pessimism for you? How have things changed since you finished the movie?

Some things have looked actually worse. A study came out from Dalhousie University in Halifax stating that shark populations in the Atlantic of the great sharks--which is any shark over four feet long--these populations have dropped 93 to 99% in the last 30 years. They've also started to show the ecosystem repercussions of what happens when you remove sharks. No one really knows. No one's ever removed a predator of this sort of status before. They know that populations of rays--just below sharks--have boomed out of control in the Atlantic and these rays have consumed most of the shellfish off the East Coast. So century-old mollusk fisheries have been shut down. And it's happening all over the Eastern seaboard. What else is happening is that when I started making Sharkwater there were five countries that had banned sharkfinning and now there are about 24. Yao Ming and Jackie Chan have also come out as spokesman for the anti-sharkfinning movement. The President of Taiwan's daughter said that she won't serve sharkfin soup at her wedding. And an organization called WildAid is working closely with the government of China trying to get sharkfin soup banned at all the Olympic functions. So it's started.

You wrote and spoke the narration of the film. Was that a tough call for you? Were there any outside pressures saying let's turn this over to someone who's done this before?

Man, that was the hardest thing to do with the movie. I came back from shooting this movie and I had this crazy human story and very little shark footage. And we were talking to our distributors and everybody said, "we're in, we look the movie, but you have to be in it." So that was a bit of a shock. That's sort of why editing took so long. It took an enormous amount of time for me to gain comfort with myself and my own voice and me on-camera in the film. I would have absolutely loved to bring on a celebrity or someone to do it--

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Someone like Morgan Freeman?

Yeah, Morgan Freeman, Pierce Brosnan--he does a lot of ocean issues. Somebody. But because I was sort of writing the movie at that point, I had no idea how to tell the story of what happened to me through someone else's voice.

There's one montage late in the film where it's just finning after finning after finning and you get choked up watching it. I mean, you're just watching fish have their fins cut off and it sounds like it's a dry moment if I describe it to somebody, but when you actually see it the movie really hits home.

Yeah, for sure. And how cool is that--that we've got people emotionally attached to sharks so much that when they see them dying, they care. That was another thing that took a long time in editing--where do we put that in the movie? Do we put it in the beginning of the movie? Do we put it at the end of the movie? And it came out that we didn't want to put it in the movie at all until everybody had an emotional connection with sharks so that when they saw them dying, they gave a shit about it.

Sharkwater opens on 11/2 in Los Angeles

Photos courtesy of Sharkwater Productions