We received this as a review copy from our friends at Paradiso a long time ago – years ago, in fact. Why did it take so long to review, then? If I’m honest, it’s the subject. It caught my eye as I am a huge fan of natural history documentaries, the type put out on an all-too-infrequent basis by the BBC. Then I read the cover and my heart sank. I will be honest with you here and tell you what went through my mind as I read the text: ‘Sharks…blah blah…stunning photography… blah blah… misunderstood… blah blah… act now…’
Great, so here I had willingly elected to watch what the legendary Eric Cartman would describe as a “…bunch of tree-hugging hippy crap”. Her indoors wouldn’t watch it with me. Side note: we have a ‘mine’, ‘hers’ and ‘ours’ pile. Mine are all the potentially good stuff, ‘ours’ consists of things I will probably tolerate and ‘hers’ is just, well, Coco Before Chanel and the like. The cinematic equivalent of shoe shopping. I digress. That side note was merely to inform you that Sharkwater stayed firmly on the ‘mine’ pile and never ventured further – a tacit agreement had been reached and Sharkwater would not be viewed together.
The reason for all this unprompted honesty is not borne of some Damascene conversion to all things hessian, rather from a quite new experience for me. I was wrong. I was wrong not to have read the blurb properly. I was wrong to have shuffled it around the to-view pile in favour of big-budget frippery such as Tron: Legacy (2012). More importantly, I was wrong about my entire perception of sharks, one that partly comes from the same place as everyone else’s – the movies. Films don’t usually garner awards for no reason, with the exception perhaps of Titanic (1997), and Sharkwater won around 14, so it also appears that independent film juries know better than me. This was turning out to be a bad day.
Not as bad as for the shark population in our oceans. Clumsy segues aside, sharks are literally being killed in their millions every year and very little is done about it because they are aren’t cuddly like pandas, coquettish like dolphins and don’t have the big-eyed greeting card cuteness of a Harp Seal. The reason for this wholesale slaughter is very simple: Dinner. Shark’s Fin Soup is a delicacy in China and the fins are valued as a cure or prophylactic against arthritis, cancers and that old favourite, sexual potency.
It”s also true to say that in the seven-odd years since this film was first released, many countries have banned the sale or possession of fins – including China. However, the black market, as demonstrated by the 1930s prohibition of alcohol in the US, is a powerful and lucrative affair. Sharkwater is very careful not to point the finger at anyone in particular, particularly China and tries to convey the message of shark preservation as a balanced and reasonable argument. I would have to say that I don’t believe it always succeeds but a film by a self-confessed lover of the shark would hardly be otherwise, however carefully he tried to disguise it.
The shark-lover in question is one Rob Stewart, a diver, photographer and marine biologist. He has had a passion for sharks since he was a kid – as he explains in the preamble to the main thrust of the film. He is also very keen to debunk the mythology surrounding sharks, using soundbites such as ‘more people are killed by elephants every year than are killed by sharks’.
Thankfully, he keeps these to a minimum and stays on-target for the majority of the film. The message he has to deliver is not a terribly hopeful or optimistic one, either. Quite apart from the barbaric way in which the sharks are (graphically) yanked from the water, de-finned and shoved back into the ocean to bleed out, there is a deeper issue – one of marine conservation. Whales are protected because they are few in number. Sharks are numerous (for now) but may well contribute greatly to the ecological balance of the oceans, feeding on the fish that feed on the plankton and so on. Upsetting this balance could reduce all such life lower in the food chain.
When you stop to consider that plankton are the biggest absorber of man-made CO2, and that fewer sharks equal fewer fish and less plankton, the environmental benefits are more clear. Whatever your take on climate change, carbon emissions or biodiversity, this is something we will never know until the sharks are reduced in such significant numbers that they stop affecting the ocean life cycle. By then, it may be too late.
From a cinematographic perspective, Sharkwater is a joy. Gorgeous, lingering ocean-scapes, kelp forests and more marine life than you could shake a stick at. Out of the water, the story is told in a very rough and raw documentary style, a counterpoint that actually serves to add impetus to the story rather than detract from it. Sometimes the sensationalism is a little over-played but I got the impression it was from genuine passion rather than a desire to deceive. I put it down to having become inured to Hollywood having dumbed me down and don’t doubt the credentials or the veracity of the small filming crew at all.
The results may surprise you. A simple tale about one man’s passion and a desire to protect the humble shark quickly escalates into a story of corrupt South American courts, gangster activity, death threats and physical violence. If people are going to all this trouble to prevent the truth of what is happening to the shark from coming out, doesn’t it seem likely there must be a story worth telling?