There is no doubt that the final scenes of Sharkwater Extinction were not in activist-director Rob Stewart’s plans. Alfred Hitchcock said that in feature films, the director is god, but in documentary films, it is God who is the director. And here is the most unfortunate intervention and awful plot twist of them all: Stewart, a Torontonian who dedicated his life to preserving and unvilifying a magnificent underwater animal, died in a dive at the age of 37 while making a film for the cause.
Sharkwater Extinction is an exposé on the illegal shark-fin industry. It premieres Sept. 7 at Roy Thomson Hall as part of the Toronto International Film Festival. A sequel to 2006’s Sharkwater (which examined the impact of shark hunting on the ocean’s ecosystem), the new documentary notes that since the first film, numerous countries have outlawed the practice of “finning," in which fishermen slice off the animals' fins, leaving them to die, all for bowls of shark-fin soup. The practice continues, however, through lax enforcement and loopholes in international laws.
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Stewart, as the film’s posthumous narrator, gravely cites alarming numbers: Some 150 million sharks are killed every year, resulting in a 90-per-cent decrease in the world’s shark population in the past 30 years. Stewart optimistically believed that once the unaware public knew the score, their morals would engage and actions would result.
“Documentaries are not made to freight facts,” the film’s editor, Nick Hector, says. “They are made to create emotional connections, to get people to engage with the facts.”
Hector and filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson were brought on board by Stewart’s parents (Brian Stewart and Sandra Campbell) to finish the film their son had intended to make. Stewart left behind hours of film and copious notes, but no script. Hector and filmmaker Gunnarsson (who have collaborated on such films as Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie, which won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at TIFF in 2010) dutifully attempted to make the documentary Stewart had envisioned, using left-behind dailies and journals as a guide to Stewart’s intentions.
“Usually in a documentary film, there’s an ‘a-ha’ moment when you feel, ‘Okay, I’ve got this story,’ and everything else is a bonus,” says Gunnarsson, who is credited as a consultant on Sharkwater Extinction. “I’m not sure Rob had his 'a-ha' moment or not. But we decided the film would be Rob’s film, and that it would be told from his point of view, in the first person.”
According to Hector, there was something “beautifully prescient” to Stewart’s notes. “Rob had a strong authorial signature. His notes were exactly what I needed.”
But while the film shows Stewart and his team secretly taping fishing boats, food transporters and supermarkets from Costa Rica to Cape Verde to Santa Monica Bay, Sharkwater Extinction cannot help but become at least partly about the late conservationist himself. When he talks about an endangered ecosystem and an animal imperilled, the documentary takes on a poignant urgency and fateful overtone. To save the shark and the oceans, mankind is running out of excuses and time. Stewart makes none of the former, but was unknowingly subject to the limitation of the latter.
He is heard talking about nearly perishing in a “half-dozen” instances and how he knew when and how he would die.
“Young people feel they are immortal,” says Gunnarsson, whose filmography includes the 2001 feature Rare Birds. “There was an element of that with Rob. If what we believe is righteous, everything will work out.”
While filming in the Florida Keys in January, 2017, Stewart died after making his third dive of the day. He was using complicated rebreather equipment that made less noise than standard gear and produced no bubbles, which could scare off the sharks he was attempting to film. He died due to an acute case of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. His family launched a lawsuit last year against the companies and individuals who organized the dive, claiming they were negligent.
Stewart was committed to what could perhaps be considered a niche cause, but his legacy extends beyond the preservation of sharks. Early in Sharkwater Extinction, he tells a story of being lost in the ocean, when his only option was to not give up. It was a metaphor, he says, for the challenges facing the ocean’s ecosystem and the planet’s ecological balance.
“There’s a big Sharkwater community out there,” Gunnarsson says. “An army of young people were inspired by Rob, and they’ll carry his legacy forward.”
Anything less would be further tragedy; but, of course, it’s out of Stewart’s hands now.
Sharkwater Extinction screens at TIFF on Sept. 7, 2 p.m., at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.
Editor’s note: (Aug. 7, 2018) An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the family of Rob Stewart launched a lawsuit this spring. In fact, it was launched last year. This version has been corrected.