Daily updates from the first annual AFI DALLAS International Film Festival presented by Target, founding sponsor Victory Park, March 22 to April 1, 2007

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Filming with Sharks!

In the world of film, one quite often hears, "You have to see it in the theater." That command is most often being uttered in reference to a large studio film. Usually fictional. Usually using visual spectacle to cover lack of character and storyline.

This time, you will hear it about a documentary that is replete with character and story.

Sharkwater's cinematic love letter to the species begins as a stunning collection of underwater video mixed with classic clips of shark mythology from 40s military reels to modern day cinema.

The film then focuses on the filmmaker's narrative about his childhood passion for the species and decades-long journey to study and co-exist with sharks. Rob Stewart says the tipping point for his cinematic crusade on behalf of sharks came during an assignment in the Galapagos Islands.

Stewart says, "I was there to photograph hammerhead sharks in all their majesty, but instead spent a day cutting dead or dying sharks from long lines. This opened my eyes to the reality of shark fishing - that they were being fished even in the most protected areas on earth. I started trying to get the word out there that sharks were being wiped out using print media - magazine articles and photo essays. It didn't have the impact that I wanted, as I couldn't get people into an emotional relationship with sharks, so I decided to make a film."

With his knowledge and courage, Stewart is able to swim with the many types of sharks unharmed. But there are dangers. Stewart's love for one of the most feared animals of the deep exposes him to the benevolence of human politics and greed.

While traveling with conservation activist Paul Watson, Rob Stewart faces Costa Rica's Fin mafia and together they are threatened with arrest. While Watson works on keeping them out of jail and on the seas fighting for the rights of sharks and other endangered sea animals, Stewart faces severe illness when he is diagnosed with the flesh eating disease.

But through all this Stewart finally finds hope. Their work, while fraught with challenges and disappointments, inevitably inspires a country to fight back against a black market endangering the sharks and other sea creatures.

But is Stewart's camera turned to often toward himself versus the sharks and their plight? Stewart believes that the content of the film was dictated both by fate, happy coincidence in the structuring and finally, what the audience for the film seemed to demand.

He explains, "When I started making the film, I wanted to make a beautiful underwater film, one without people. One month into the filming I hadn't been underwater yet, but we ended up filming ourselves so we would have a record of what happened to us in case we ended up stuck in a Costa Rican prison for the rest of our lives.

"Upon returning from the trip, we had very little underwater footage, but this crazy human drama, which I still thought would be the making of."

He continues, "There was very little of me in the film at that point, and all of our test screenings and distributors urged us to bring more of the human story into the film, and make it my story. We also needed to show that sharks weren't dangerous, leading us to the scenes of me free diving with sharks.

"After nearly a year of crafting the film very much without the human element, we succumbed to the pressure and let it follow my journey. What happened to me followed textbook story structure, which is why we're fortunate enough to have a documentary with such an incredible story. It was however really difficult to see/hear myself on camera - like listening to your voice on an answering machine and saying, 'Wow, do I really sound like that?'

"I think that by having a story like this, we're going to engage more people, and thus more effectively bring the plight of sharks to light."

There is the crusade and there is the film. Stewart sees the two feeding off one another to a mutual benefit and one that he will continue to use.

"We're in a time now where future generations' survival on the planet is in jeopardy," Stewart says. "We need a more sustainable relationship with the natural world, or risk being wiped off the planet. For this sake, stories need to be told, and conservation needs to become cool.

"I'll use the most powerful medium to do this. And that's film."

Throughout, the film captures the majestic oceans around the world. The cinematography is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And with that beauty and Stewart's tenacity and passion, the shark is seen as not a fierce monster of the deep, but instead a gorgeous, sympathetic victim of inefficient fishing techniques, greed, and media fed fear.

SHARKWATER, 7:45 p.m., March 30 (and 8:30 p.m. March 31) @ Magnolia.

By Justina Walford, Staff Writer