Rob Stewart's face is lean, hollow-cheeked, with flashing green eyes below black hair spiked like a sea urchin. The 27-year-old's speaking cadence isn't a far cry from Keanu Reeves's, but you'd be mistaken if you took him for some beach bum with a sideline in nature photography and a passing interest in fish.
The beginning of his film certainly sets you up to believe it, though. The opening scenes show someone keen to disabuse an audience about the overhyped dangers of sharks, but there is no warning the film will be a harrowing tale of a wildlife photographer's transformation into a filmmaker and eco-warrior.
"It all happened out of duress," says Stewart, a Toronto native in Halifax for a brief press tour. "Like, I wanted to make a pretty underwater film. Winged Migration, but underwater. Very little narration...I was banking on my abilities as an underwater photographer to pull that off. I wasn't a storyteller or a documentary filmmaker. When we ended up colliding with this fishing boat and all hell broke loose and we were potentially going to end up being stuck in a Costa Rican prison for the rest of our lives, we turned the cameras on ourselves."
Sharkwater tells the story of Stewart's trips in 2002 to Costa Rica and regions around the Galapagos islands Darwin and Wolf, but not exactly in the order they happened (most of the underwater footage was taken after his legal problems in Costa Rica). At the film's core are unexpected revelations of the illegal trade in shark fins to literally feed an Asian market, discovered by investigative journalism that would put professionals to shame, all borne out of Stewart's genuine passion for preserving sharks.
"We had this crazy human drama, and then I get hospitalized"—with necrotizing fasciitis, AKA flesh-eating disease, and later on, dengue fever, West Nile virus and tuberculosis simultaneously—"and then we're trying to piece this story together and I had no idea what to do with it. The movie took another four years to figure out completely."
In person, he appears to be hale and hearty, with all his limbs intact, though he does look thinner in person than he does in his film. He admits he is now a bit more susceptible to catching things, but it doesn't stop him. Having faced and survived both the corrupt judiciary of a foreign country and a host of esoteric illnesses that would turn most off the idea of going anywhere near those exotic climes again, let alone down into shark-infested waters without the aid of scuba gear, it's exactly what he does.
"I was always saying "Sharks aren't dangerous,' but never did I show it," he says.
In order to get that message across, Stewart went to the Bahamas and shot scenes of himself freediving and interacting with sharks, feeding and playing with them, and he also went back to the country where he's a wanted man. He winds up being the hero of this story, even though initially, he didn't even want to be in it. He credits, or maybe blames, his producers and distributors for the way his film turned out, though he doesn't deny it is his personal experience that generates suspense and is making Sharkwater a festival hit.
"I started reading books on scriptwriting, eventually figuring out that the journey I went on had textbook story structure," says Stewart. "It had an exciting incident, a launching mission, continually mounting obstacles and points of no return, and the payoff happens in a different way than the audience would expect."
Beyond Stewart's misadventures battling against the illegal fishing trade, what is eye-opening about Sharkwater is that by many people, sharks aren't considered worth protecting, despite the fact their numbers are diminishing rapidly worldwide. The shark suffers due to our fear—even though, according to his film, pop machines and elephants kill more people annually than sharks—and the media's exploitation of that fear.
"I view sharks in a specific way. I think they're beautiful and magnificent," he says, a perspective that is communicated quite convincingly in his film. "It comes down to money. The more people Discovery can get watching their shows the more money they're going to get from advertisers. Their mandate is solely to make money, not to conserve the planet, not to portray the reality. A dangerous shark is news every time."
Sharkwater opens March 23.