April 8, 2008



Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***

Rob Stewart's gorgeously shot, informative - and wistful - documentary Sharkwater is about that mysterious and fascinating, and, the film argues, the most misunderstood, of all sea animals. If the film sometimes gets a little choppy, the filmmaker's passion for the subject and the disturbing revelations to be gained from watching the film make it more than worthwhile.

The youthful Canadian underwater photographer and biologist Stewart, who quit his job to make this film, narrates and "stars," along with a host of sharks. Sharkwater begins with montage VO from old shark documentaries which include a hilariously misinformed bit of instruction from the Navy on scaring off sharks when in the water, followed by montage of media portrayals of shark attacks, adding to the fear factor. It "makes 'good television," says one frustrated shak researcher. But after initial, entertaining educational section of the film, it segues into a disturbing examination of how sharks are being illegally hunted - most often, and most cruelly, for their fins - as Stewart joins in with GreenPeace's Paul Watson, a fellow Canadian and one of the most passionate and renowned defender of marine life.

These prehistoric fish are hearty, we learn; they've managed to survive though five major mass extinctions. But they are faced with their greatest threat yet: man.

Killing off sharks, the top of fhe food chain in the ocean, can cause major upheaval in everything else below, a domino effect if you will. And the film's central pursuit, along with showing the abominable and illegal long line fishing practice, is about the cruel and utterly pointless desire for shark fins to make soup, which involves cutting off the fins and then tossing the animal back to bleed to death, all for a soup in which the fin adds no flavor. Sharks are thought by some Asian cultures to have a magical power to heal and thus the long history of the soup. This belief is misguided, too, of course, since as the film points out, sharks don't have magical healing powers, they get diseases like any animals. Stewart's only attempt to counterpoint is an interview with a shady shark fin merchant who defends his practice, but it's hard to find many rational arguments in favor of shark fin soup. And to anyone who thinks this film is one-sided, well, no one else is speaking for the sharks.

The film's overriding goal is to inform us of the misconceptions about sharks - - Stewart reminds us how sharks "are nothing like their reputation" a few too many times - alongside the pursuit of illegal fishermen, and while these two lines don't always twine perfectly, Sharkwater makes a pretty compelling, even eye-opening case for ecological protections butting heads with rampant corruption and environmental ignorance. How well you appreciate the film may have to do with how much you accept the surfer-ish Stewart's overtalky narration and front and center presence in the film. It's clear he is passionate about the subject, even if that passion sometimes leads the film to feeling ill-focused (with a few too many shots of him standing shirtless on camera). A tangential section about his undeniably harrowing experience during the film's making with "flesh-eating disease" takes us away from sharks, too, though he does make clear that the shark story is partially what keeps him going. But while the filmmaker could learn a few lessons on integrating the personal with the larger from Ross McElwee, by adding a personal touch to the film here I do think it also brings an emotional component to help make the case for changing our ways toward these incredibly misunderstood animals.

In addition to Stewart and his team's gorgeous cinematography, both above and below sea, Sharkwater also offers a nicely eclectic music score, much of which seems to have been borrowed from my CD collection. The DVD also features a "Beneath the Surface" featurette, worth a watch if you're interested in more on the film's shooting, and "Shark Defense," the amusing Naval training film.

Go to savingsharks.com for more.

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Posted by cphillips at April 8, 2008 1:23 PM
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