These days, the easiest way to find a Chinese restaurant that sells shark-fin soup is to look for the protesters outside. This sea change in attitudes toward sharks and the traditional delicacy served at Chinese celebrations, started with Rob Stewart’s movie Sharkwater.
The 2006 film helped transform the public image of sharks from killer great whites chomping on cute swimmers to the underwater version of rhinoceros, majestic creatures being mutilated for their body parts. Since the movie’s debut, shark-fin soup and the practice of shark-finning have been banned in communities all over the world. Not bad for a first film.
While Stewart was on tour answering questions about Sharkwater, a student at a screening in Hong Kong asked him what was the point of saving sharks from soup bowls when the oceans are turning into toxic soups. The always optimistic and effervescent filmmaker suddenly found himself at sea, so to speak. The more Stewart thought about it, the more he realized it was time to shift his focus from saving sharks to saving humans.
Today, the 33-year-old filmmaker says he wants a revolution. As he fielded questions from the full house at the Vancouver International Film Festival last fall after the screening of his new movie, Revolution, he looked ready to lead one as he declared that he was determined to have his new movie seen by “one billion people”. While the film was screening downtown, Stewart snuck out of the theatre for drinks at a nearby Granville Street patio and spent an hour advising the Georgia Straight of his plans to save the world and reach those one billion viewers.
Stewart’s approach to environmentalism has the charm, energy, passion, and naiveté of those ancient Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies where one of the kids would declare: “My dad’s got a barn; let’s put on a show.” But although he’s got the old-school conviction that knowledge will change the world, he’s from the generation of environmentalists that gets twitchy around the very word environmentalist because for him it conjures up images of cranky hippies scolding you about the contents of your grocery cart. This is partly because of how little luck he’s had dealing with cranky old hippies.
Following the success of Sharkwater, Stewart thought that if all the environmental groups in the world would just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”, their collective clout would be unstoppable. He and a few friends and fans put together a group called United Conservationists with the dual goal of becoming a place for people to find out what to do about the issues he was filming and to act as a sort of United Nations for green groups. “The goal of United Conservationists, which is why it has such a big, generic name, is we want it to grow huge and have a lot of power and, you know, eventually achieve significant changeable results in swaying governments, maybe even replacing governments,” Stewart said.
Not only did green groups decline to unite under his shiny new banner but Stewart suddenly found himself greenie non grata for major eco-events at which he’d previously been a star guest. Now that he was no longer an unaffiliated filmmaker—now that he had his own NGO—he was suddenly viewed as “the competition”.
Although the UN idea failed, UC did a lot better with his other goal of letting people know how to help the sharks. “It created this open-source campaign called Fin Free and it did all the branding, all the media, launched this thing, and gave Fin Free to the world.”
Fin Free provided would-be shark saviours with an online tool kit (available at fin-free.org/ ). “We’ve given people access to Sharkwater, access to the logo and T-shirts and all that stuff, and they’ve been running with it. Its gotten shark-fin bans all over the place.”
One of the groups he helped is the Vancouver-based organization Shark Truth, founded by Claudia Li in 2009, which runs campaigns on several fronts: trying to convince the Chinese community to hold “fin-free weddings” and actively promoting alternatives to shark-fin soup for celebrations and ceremonies.
Emily Hunter, author of The Next Eco-Warriors, credited Sharkwater with igniting the shark-conservation movement. “People from around the world took on the cause in a big way. Dozens of groups formed, millions saw the film, and countries banning shark-finning jumped from 16 to 95 in a few short years, truly reminding us that one person can make a difference when they spark the public to act.”
Thanks to the impact of Sharkwater, Stewart is evangelical about getting people to watch his movies, but his main objective is to inspire them to action after they leave the theatres. He talked at length about his plans to make it possible for kids to see Revolution for free and to eventually stream the film for free on a website integrated with “a study guide, curriculum inserts, and all that stuff”.
His dream: “When you download the movie, the movie comes wrapped in the mobile application, and the mobile application also plays the movie. So from that point on, every kid that has the Revolution mobile application has the movie on their phone, and they can show all their friends, and they can stop it at any point, find out information, and click. If you’re in the ‘problems’ section and you’re like, ‘I’m freaking out,’ you can stop it and find out who’s doing ocean acidification, sign up, change the world immediately, that kind of thing.”
Said Hunter: “In using new tools like social media and filmmaking, he and others are sparking global change on the issues that are going to affect young people the most.”
Stewart figures that if the movie becomes available free online the way he envisions it, “a billion people will know what we know and the world will change, right?”
This level of ambition sounds insane until he breaks down the numbers for China, where officials told him to remove Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson from Sharkwater because the government was upset Watson had met with the Dalai Lama. Stewart replaced the whale warrior with Chinese NBA superstar Yao Ming. As of that VIFF interview, Stewart said, Sharkwater had been seen by an estimated 124 million viewers. Add an anticipated 250 million Chinese TV viewers later this year and suddenly one billion audience members for Revolution doesn’t sound all that crazy. “If we can do that [for Sharkwater] not giving it away for free—on our first try on a shark movie—I feel like a billion’s not unreasonable.”
It sounds even less irrational now that the movie is set to be released across Canada on April 12, with a screening in Cannes in May and executive producer Gus Van Sant handling American distribution.
The movie’s website (www.therevolutionmovie.com/) doesn’t have anything quite as revolutionary as Stewart’s dream app in place yet, but it does include an educational package and links to information about key “world issues”, including climate change, deforestation, ocean acidification, and overfishing.
Reached by the Straight for an update on his activities, Stewart said the Chinese version of Sharkwater is set for release in August, and although his app was delayed and a new company has been brought in to develop it, it’s still part of his master plan to change the world (he said he’ll be looking to crowdfund the app through indiegogo.com/).
Thanks to the real-world impact of Sharkwater, Stewart believes that if everybody knew what was going on that politicians would have to answer to the voters on environmental issues or face a genuine revolution. ”If people knew that our life-support system was in jeopardy, [that] the human species could potentially go down this century and future generations and millions of species are at stake because of it, then there would be a vote-determinative issue for sure.”
Andrew Weaver, a leading climate scientist who is running for the Green Party in Victoria in the May provincial election, told the Straight he considers Stewart’s work with sharks “heroic”. Weaver is equally impressed by his attitude. “Rob’s enthusiasm for nature is infectious. After watching Revolution, you can’t help but think about the consequence of your own behaviour on the world around us.”
As for how he’ll make a difference after Revolution, Stewart said that depends in part on whether or not he actually sparks a revolution. “Sharkwater was my journey for a period of time. Revolution was my journey for a period of time. And I don’t know what my journey’s gonna be like next until this bomb drops and I see how the public reacts, and if this does start a revolution, like, are people going to be in the streets? Are we going to be changing our governments? Are people going to need me? So I don’t really know what to do next until this hits.”
Assuming his audience doesn’t take to the streets right away, he does have a few ideas. ”I was thinking about making a TV show called Here Is a List of Our Demands, because I’ve got some pretty serious ideas about what we need to change. And I thought if we had each episode explore those ideas to see if they’re possible, and to see what would change in our world if we did institute these things…”
Then Stewart switched gears to Plan B or C (or Q). “Maybe a fictional film about some young people trying to overthrow their current government and instituting some of these things might be a better way to get that into the public’s world. So I don’t know what’s next.”
Whatever he does next, and whatever happens now, Stewart’s enthusiasm about his mission is tough to beat. “I think the way I can best serve the planet and the environment is just educating people. If I bring everybody up in their knowledge of what’s going on, then they’ll elect different people.”
And he’s convinced that the trick to changing the world is making sure kids know what’s really going on—which is why he’s so obsessed with getting the word out on Revolution and its issues through social media.
“If you sat kids down on day one at school and said: ‘Guys, we’ve fucked it up; we’ve burnt and consumed almost everything and your future is really grim unless you pay attention, you learn what we’ve got to tell you, and you come out of this and you start doing something,’ kids would be getting As; kids would be studying because the future and their lives would depend on it.”