Sharkwater Extinction a fitting legacy for late film-maker Rob Stewart
David Roy speaks to Brian and Sandra Stewart about completing their son Rob Stewart's final film, Sharkwater Extinction, which the Canadian conservationist died during the shooting of in 2017
SHOWING at QFT Belfast tomorrow and Saturday, Sharkwater Extinction is the visually stunning sequel to shark-loving conservationist and film-maker Rob Stewart's acclaimed 2006 documentary Sharkwater, in which the former photo journalist turned environmental crusader exposed illegal shark fishing practices around the world.
Tragically, Stewart (37) died during the making of the new film. The crusading Canadian drowned on January 31 2017 during a deep diving expedition to film endangered sawfish near the Florida Keys: the Toronto man's body was found by coastguard three days later and the cause of death by drowning was later linked to an acute lack of oxygen in the gas mix of his rebreather, specialist diving apparatus used to spend extended periods deep underwater.
However, Stewart's parents Brian and Sandra spent the next 19 months helping to finish Sharkwater Extinction in his honour, crafting a new film from the footage he'd shot in locations such as Costa Rica, the Bahamas, Panama, Cabo Verde in South Africa and Los Angeles – including his fateful final dive.
All these places are hotspots for 'shark finning', the barbaric fishing process whereby sharks – including endangered species like Hammerheads – are harvested to have their fins sold at up to $200 per pound to countries where shark fin soup is a delicacy, the still-living creatures then dumped back into the ocean to drown.
Indeed, finning remains a highly lucrative concern despite having now been banned in 90 countries – up from just four prior to the release of the original Sharkwater film.
As Stewart points out in the film, sharks get a bad rep despite being one of the world's least lethal animals in terms of human deaths: just 10 per year compared to the 100 racked up every 12 months by elephants, yet between 100 and 150 million sharks are killed every year.
However, the world's shark population has been decimated by 90 per cent over the past three decades. 250,000 sharks will be killed in just the 80 minutes it takes viewers to watch Sharkwater Extinction – some as a result of legal sport fishing activity – and shark meat is now somehow ending up in all sorts of unexpected places from make-up products to pet food.
"We're really proud of Rob and the work that he did," explains Sandra. "Most of the movie is actually Rob's work and we're thrilled to have finished it, because it's an important message that he would have wanted everybody in the world to hear and see. But it's bittersweet too: I wish he was here to get the accolades for it."
Initially, the Stewarts had a mountain of digital footage to sift through, without knowing exactly how their late son had intended to combine the spectacular 6k HD images of his beloved sharks in the wild with distressing footage of the finning practices he uncovered.
"The challenge for us was discovering the story was there," continues Brian. "We really didn't know how much had been shot, what footage was there, how much of Rob was in the footage and so on. He had shot over 400 hours in 6k, which is an extraordinary amount of content, but that was only 60 to 70 per cent I'd say of what he was planning on shooting.
"So, the question was, could we still tell the story he'd wanted to tell? But once we got into his computer and iPad – which we couldn't break into, according to Apple, but we did – all his notes were there and they were fantastic.
"Every scene, every location had a story arc to it and he had objectives for each location he went to. So we knew if we had the footage to match we could tell the story."
With the assistance of award-winning Canadian editor Nick Hector and acclaimed documentary film-maker Sturla Gunnerson as their creative consultant, the Stewarts painstakingly pieced together Sharkwater Extinction for its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September, where it earned positive notices from critics and fans.
Already available on-demand in the US and Canada and released at the cinema in Ireland and Britain this weekend, it seems the new documentary is already well on its way to reaching the same international audience which took its predecessor and Stewart's 2012 ecological collapse-themed doc Revolution to heart.
"Rob did basically everything when he was making his movies," reveals Brian. "He would normally have been the one to sit and edit the footage and pull it all together, so without him being there I think we still managed to tell his story. I think we did a reasonable job on it."
Despite the depressing statistics involved in the battle to save sharks from extinction and the distressing footage of shark finning on display in his film, Sharkwater Extinction is also fuelled by Rob Stewart's irrepressible optimism that he was making a difference by helping to educate the public that the future of the planet lies in their hands.
"Rob in all his movies really believed that we can rise above the issues and find a way around them," comments Brian.
"He believed that one person can make a difference and wanted people to leave [the cinema] feeling optimistic that they can make a difference – that it's not too late. Once people are are educated they can make informed choices."
Rob Stewart had already made a big difference by the time he died doing what he loved. Undoubtedly, Sharkwater Extinction will now stand as his final, poignant call to action.
"Rob wanted to show people the beauty of the underwater world and how unique and interesting the sharks and underwater creatures were so that people would grow to love them," Sandra tells me.
"Once they grew to love them, he believed they would work to protect them. Rob's got so many followers around the world now, we're hoping that between them and the work he's left behind, his legacy will live on."
:: Sharkwater Extinction is showing at QFT Belfast on Friday March 22 and Saturday March 23. See Queensfilmtheatre.com for tickets and times. Visit Sharkwater.com to find out more about Rob Stewart's films and his legacy.