Remembering Rob Stewart at TIFF
The Toronto conservation hero's last film will make its world premiere this month
Rob Stewart, who grew up near Bayview and York Mills
© Will Allen
Rob Stewart, a Canadian filmmaker and Toronto's own conservation hero, passed away while diving off the Florida Keys in 2017. His last film, Sharkwater: Extinction, sat unfinished at the time of his death. But thanks to the help of his friends and family, who rallied to finish the project for him, the film will get its world premiere on Sept. 7 at TIFF. Post City spoke with colleague Julie Andersen about Rob, the film and their shared love of sharks.
Tell me about the circumstances around Rob’s passing and the team deciding to carry on this important project.
It was a very tough day and a very tough year and a half, but we had no choice. This is obviously what all of us would do naturally. Rob was such a huge power for all of our lives, and of course losing Rob, I don’t think it was even a discussion. All of us just banded together with Rob’s parents and decided we were going to move forward.
What made him so special?
Every day I hear of more and more people who have been impacted by Rob and are making changes not just in their lives but for things that they are passionate about. That’s really the legacy of Rob. He used to have a saying: that you take your passion and you smash it together with your talent, and you live a life of meaning and you can bring about great change. It’s not just about sharks. It’s whatever you’re passionate about.
Tell me about your introduction to sharks.
I was 19 and I was diving in Hawaii, and I was by myself, and I suddenly felt this presence next to me, and I looked, and arm’s-length next to me was a hammerhead shark, literally looking at me eye to eye, and I locked eyes, and I tell you what, it shifted my world completely. I saw life not death. It made me question everything I was told. Here was this animal that was supposed to eat me alive, and instead it seemed like it was much more afraid of me, and I just became intoxicated by having experiences like that.
When did conservation kick in?
Well I became a shark nerd, like Rob, and went around the world trying to find sharks and to dive with them. A lot of times what I was experiencing, more than the sharks themselves, was what was happening to them. So the shark finning, going to Burma Banks [Myanmar’s deep-water home to a large shark population] and seeing the shark fins drying in the sun, and the lights on the illegal shark finning vessels come on at night. And it just really tore at me. But it wasn’t until I met Rob that I realized I could do something about it.
So when did you first meet him?
I had an advertising agency and had gotten into the Internet really early, and I was working with companies like Porsche and Mercedes, and I just felt a little bit like the ocean was pulling me. And one day I went to a screening of this little movie called Sharkwater, and I was absolutely blown away by this young, amazing guy who decided he wasn’t going to take it anymore. And he made this amazing movie. I waited afterwards to meet him, which was totally uncharacteristic of me. Five days later, I was in Toronto with a notebook full of ideas, and the rest is history. He basically inspired me to get on board with the cause. I sold my house, my business, my car and changed my life completely to work with Rob Stewart.
Wow, that’s a big change.
There was just something very special about him. He thought he could change the world, and working with him, you felt like it was possible.
What does the new film add to the conversation around sharks?
Rob kind of helped us fall in love with an animal that most people malign and hate. The new film looks at all the other issues facing sharks. The first film looked at shark finning and the fact that 80 million sharks were disappearing per year for their fins. This film really looks at what happens to the other 70 million sharks that are disappearing and opens our eyes to the fact that we don’t even realize how many products we have in our homes that contain sharks. That was a really important realization for Rob.
We do? What kinds of products?
It’s crazy, everything from deodorant, lotions and lipsticks all the way to pet foods. Imitation crab is often filled with shark. So many different names for shark that sometimes we don’t even know. You got to a fish and chips shop and you’re eating rock salmon. Well guess what, that’s shark too. It’s crazy how accessible it is to all of us.
Why is it important to protect sharks?
Sharks sit atop the food chain and are apex predators. If you remove them out of the food chain, it has cascading effects. What we forget is that sharks have been on this planet for 450 million years, right? They have survived five major extinctions. They formed our oceans, and oceans are so critical for our survival. So it’s really not just about sharks, and it’s not just about our oceans. It’s about us and what we are doing to our life-support systems.