August 29, 2014
Feb 3, 2013
04:29 PM
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Rob Stewart: the outspoken filmmaker on the repeal of Toronto's shark fin ban and his new movie, Revolution

At the much-anticipated 2010 Hong Kong premiere of his hit documentary Sharkwater, filmmaker Rob Stewart held a standard post-screening Q & A. When the lights came up in the theatre, he called on a young woman who thanked him for a beautiful film but then bluntly asked, “What’s the point of stopping shark finning if the UN predicts that by 2048 the fisheries are actually going to be all wiped out?”

For a few awkward instants, Stewart was left speechless. Rather than deny he was caught off guard, Stewart, whose tenacity is well documented in Sharkwater (he stays on course through a gunboat chase, flesh-eating disease and more), engaged with the question that could undermine his entire conservationist project. And now, three years later, he has the answer: Revolution. His sophomore film opens with the scene of him stumbling at the Q & A session and from there shows Stewart leading his audience on an investigative journey. A sweeping look at the environmental challenges facing humanity today, Revolution is a call to action, structured as part travelogue, part environmental documentary.

Perhaps not surprisingly, from a young age, Stewart’s ambitions revolved around animals and animal biology, and at age 33, he still speaks animatedly about his early fascination with the underwater world.

“From the time I knew life existed in the ocean, I was super-fascinated,” he says. “I read every book that I could and just gobbled it up.”

There was no ocean access from Stewart’s York Mills and Bayview area home, but annual family vacations to Florida and the Caribbean gave him ample exposure to fish and his favourite animals — sharks. When he headed to the University of Western Ontario to pursue a biology degree, Stewart also began a job as a wildlife photographer, which led him to his first major realization about the environment.

“I’d heard animals were endangered and all that sort of stuff, but it never really impacted me in any way,” he says. “It wasn't until I was in Borneo and I saw proboscis monkeys getting encroached on by palm oil plantations and was in the Galapagos and found sharks getting long lined. That was really big.”

When Stewart says “really big,” he is referring both to his distress at witnessing first-hand the threat to his favourite species and his determination that something had to be done. He was only 20, but he spent the next year hustling to raise awareness — he published photojournalism pieces in newspapers and magazines and established a patrol boat fund but was discouraged by poor fundraising results. 

Still, he was no less convinced that action was needed — but so was a new strategy. And that’s when an unrelated remark by his father turned this shark-loving biologist into a filmmaker. “My dad told me about this new format of video camera that George Lucas was shooting Star Wars with called high definition. You could actually pull stills from it to use in magazines because the quality was high enough,” says Stewart. “And then the idea started going around in my head — maybe if I made a movie about this I could give more people my impression of sharks and show them that they’re beautiful and magnificent and amazing and in doing that make them love sharks enough to care that they’re getting wiped out.” 

“It was glaringly evident to me that if you want to save sharks you’ve got to save people.”

He had never in his life considered making a film, but it wasn’t long before Stewart was on a flight to his first shoot location, deep in debt and studying The Five C’s of Cinematography and “some blue book on documentary filmmaking” in preparation to become director, cinematographer and star of his film.

Four years and 15 countries later, Sharkwater was born. By all measures, the documentary was a huge success. It won 36 awards worldwide, broke Canadian box office records and, most importantly, achieved Stewart’s goal of changing the global attitude toward sharks and shark conservation.

“Sharks are still in trouble around the world, but the amount of money that is in shark conservation right now is huge,” he says. “When we started, there were virtually no groups working on the issue. Now there’s a ton of shark conservation groups, and many of them credit Sharkwater as their impetus. And the number of countries that have banned shark finning has gone from 16 to more than 100.”

When asked about Toronto’s own shark fin saga and the latest discouraging twist whereby an Ontario Superior Court judge overruled city council’s shark fin ban, Stewart is undeterred.

“It’s a minor roadblock. People want a world with sharks. We have public support and that's what can turn any decision around, so we’ll turn it around for sure,” he says.

Yet amid the warm reception that Stewart and his film were receiving, a discomfiting matter lurked in the background until a young woman placed it front and centre at the infamous 2010 Q & A. As Stewart admits, she was just one voice among many.

“We got to go to some of the biggest environmental festivals in the world and meet some of the world’s top scientists, and they were thrilled with Sharkwater,” he says. “But they also said, ‘You’re missing the point. We’re not just losing sharks, we’re losing everything, and sharks won’t matter if we do, in fact, lose everything else.’ ”

At that point, Stewart had his second major realization about the environment: the era of animal conservation was over. It was time to focus on the conservation of humans. Citing studies that predict the death of the world’s reefs, the disappearance of all fisheries and the loss of all forests in this century, Stewart explains that his second film was an inevitable next step.

“It was glaringly evident to me that if you want to save sharks you have to save everything else, you’ve got to save people. ”

Despite its sometimes-alarming subject matter, Revolution is a gesture of hope, balancing ominous dispatches from scientists with accounts of eco-activism. Stewart even films his participation in his first-ever protest.

“I’m more inspired than I am discouraged,” he says. In particular, it’s youth that keeps him feeling so optimistic.

“What we found in the movie was that, in the end, it was young people who were changing the world in the most dramatic ways. They know that it’s grim unless we turn things around. So they say, ‘This is my future, I want to fight for it.’ ”

And once Revolution is released this April, Stewart will plan his next move in the fight. It might be another film, but it might be something entirely different. As he says, “I mean, it’s not like I’ve got a career, really. I sort of have a mission.”