2006, PG, 89 min. Directed by Rob Stewart.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 1, 2008
Stewart, a Toronto-based marine biologist and underwater photographer, makes up for in passion what he lacks in narrative subtlety. Sharkwater, his documentary on the plight of the shark (and that's all sharks, everywhere in the ocean) in the face of a massive, 20-year boom in the Asian demand for shark's fin soup and such, is as beautiful as it is horrifying. Ultimately, the film leaves the viewer a simmering rage against the various governments (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Taiwan) that have allowed a manmade mass extinction to occur on their watch while hiding behind unenforceable international "agreements" to do otherwise. Stewart, who looks to be about 20, narrates his film in a tone that falls somewhere between oceanic noir and blithe Han Soloisms ("This time I knew we were in real trouble" is his version of "I've got a bad feeling about this," apparently). As Sharkwater moves from its initial setup (which includes the now-common observation that sharks aren't man-eaters at all, but man-biters – and only occasionally at that), it morphs into a bizarre, genre-hopping realm populated by Costa Rican gunboats, illegal high-seas longline fishing pirates, national malfeasance, corruption, and full-bore adventure stories of good vs. evil, 20,000 fathoms above the seabed. Stewart interviews pro-finning figures, including Asian shark's fin entrepreneur William Goh of Rabbit Brand, who defends his industry with the surreal argument that the shark is "a very fierce animal … they bite you and tear you, there is pain, and you die." Well, no, actually, unless you're Robert Shaw, they don't. Stewart sets out to uncover the truth behind the shark-finning industry and, to his and our good fortune, falls in with legendary "rogue conservationist" Paul Watson's Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and ends up aboard Watson's equally outlandish vessel Ocean Warrior. Watson, the subject of a recent New Yorker profile, is known in environmental circles as something of a modern-day Capt. Nemo, charging into lawless international waters to stop illegal longline fishing and shark-finning by brute force (the Ocean Warrior has razor-sharp, hull-slashing "can openers" welded to its sides and sails under a black flag complete with skull and crossed trident-and-shepherd's staff) and strategic guile. Once Watson enters the picture, Sharkwater sails into cloak-and-dagger (or trident) territory, with the captain and crew – and Stewart – getting arrested by the Costa Rican government and charged with seven counts of attempted murder, all stemming from their attempt to "arrest" a Costa Rican longline fishing vessel operating illegally. Truth is, once again, stranger and far more interesting than fiction, but Stewart, whose youthful idealism makes for passionate but uneven filmmaking, should scuttle further oceanic pedantry and focus his lens on Watson's "good pirate" efforts to sabotage the "bad pirates" and save the sea.