TIFF dreams come true for documentary filmmaker

By Dennis Hanagan –

Filmmaker and Downtown west resident Rob Stewart has come a long way from catching fish and frogs as a boy in Toronto to filming sharks in the Galapagos Islands and running from machine gun fire near Costa Rica.

“Ever since I was a kid I knew whatever I was going to do would have to deal with nature and wildlife and animals in the ocean,” says Stewart, director of Sharkwater and Revolution, two 90-minute documentaries about sharks featured this year at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The award-winning biologist, conservationist, photographer, author and scuba diver spent four years making each one. Sharkwater was made from aboard Sea Shepherd, well-known for its high seas adventures saving marine life.

“They’re not primitive,” Stewart says of sharks. “They’re not vicious, they’re not eating machines, they’re not monsters. They’re highly sophisticated animals.” He wants people to understand their importance to ocean life and ultimately to humans.

“They’re very much a framework for life in the ocean,” is his message to humans who ask why preserve them. “By removing the framework you cause eco system collapse. We know from studying the removal of predators in any eco system the consequences are far greater than we think.”

Stewart had his first encounter with a shark at age 9. What happened in that five seconds changed his impression of a creature that until then he had seen only menacingly portrayed in Jaws and thrashing widely about on the Discovery channel.

He was under water holding his breath near the Caymen Islands. Suddenly in front of him appeared a shark. “As soon as it saw me it freaked out and swam the other way. That changed everything for me. A shark afraid of a nine-year-old kid? All my fear of sharks was removed.”

Stewart was 15 when his parents bought him a little underwater camera. He found that taking photos of simple underwater life excited him. “It became an instant passion of mine.”

His first big break with sharks came when he was sent on a photo assignment to the Galapagos Islands. He was with Sea Shepherd when the ship encountered a fishing boat indiscriminately killing sharks with a fishing method called longlining.

Stewart used magazine and newspaper articles to spread the word sharks were being wiped out. But the method lacked public impact. That’s when he determined to make a film about the slaughter to make people pay attention.

As for Sea Shepherd and the fishing boat they ended up in a mid-ocean battle with the two vessels colliding. That resulted in a stay of three weeks in Costa Rica fighting court cases that were thrown out, says Stewart, then reinstated.

In the end, says Stewart, “we had to run from Costa Rica with the coast guard chasing us with machine guns.” If that wasn’t enough, Stewart’s travels have also brought him flesh-eating disease, dengue fever, West Nile virus, tuberculosis, and the risk of having to have a leg amputated.

Fortunately, the latter didn’t happen.

His next project is a movie and television series to be called The Future. “I want to paint the picture of a world we could have,” says Stewart. “What is it going to be like to be a human on a planet when we have to care about other people.”

We can achieve that, he feels, but first a crisis is coming where nine billion people will fight over dwindling resources. “We’re going to confront it, it’s just at what point on the slope are we going to confront it.”