Before I get to the long autobiographical rant that this inspires let me just hit the bullet-points. Sharkwater is a beautifully shot, intelligent documentary that takes an almost impossible to defend ideological position -defending sharks being a bit like being an apologist for Jack the Ripper after all - but somehow manages to be convincing. It is a hybrid of a Jacques Cousteau film, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth.
If you think sharks are beautiful, it is well worth your time checking out. If you happen to believe (as I do) that sharks are an absolutely terrifying apex predator, “a perfect engine, an eating machine… a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.” Even if you believe THAT, Sharkwater is still worth watching for the realization that those two opinions are not really that far apart, that they are in fact compatible. That in that efficiency, there is beauty, a place in the natural order and a need to protect and preserve that efficiency.
End capsule review
Cue autobiographical rant.
I have a profoundly personal reaction to documentaries. I literally started watching them before I could walk. My Dad worked for the National Film Board for more than thirty years. For years as a kid, he would drag a 16mm projector home to Morin-Heights to play films on our porch. In the hazy memories of my youth, the entire village crowded on to our porch to watch movies. (And from speaking to people now, it would seem that the entire village WAS on our porch at one time or another, just not all at the same time.)
Silent movies, mainly Chaplin, were in heavy rotation. Not surprisingly, so were NFB films mostly documentaries. The most popular films, the ones that people clamored to see again and again were a series of documentaries about the Inuit.
I learned very early something that people who criticize Michael Moore have never learned: documentaries are not and have never been objective. There is plenty to criticize in Moore’s oeuvre, but complaining that by presenting a point of view he bastardizes the form is a profound misunderstanding of documentaries.
As an example, Moore is criticized for the sequence in Bowling For Columbinewhere he opens a savings account and walks out of the bank with a rifle, on the grounds that anyone else would have had to wait two weeks to get the rifle. Two buts: first he DID walk out of the bank with the rifle, second he may have through his personal celebrity compressed time to make the point more dramatic, the central point remains: it is awfully silly and culturally significant that a bank would give away a free rifle for opening a savings account.
And Moore is not the first, nor will he be the last to recreate a situation for the purpose of his documentary. Take those Inuit documentaries that I saw as a kid. In most cases, the Inuit building igloos for the camera only ever built igloos when there was a camera rolling. It would not surprise me to learn that there are Inuit today who know traditional Inuit crafts only because they were taught by there fathers or grand-fathers for the NFB cameras. (Or through Zapruder-like obsessive study of the NFB films.)
Given that the point of view of the films is that the traditional way of life of the Inuit is one that we in the “civilized” West would do well to study, learn from and preserve, the films achieved their objective in a surprising way. The films were also surprisingly spiritual communicating well the Inuit philosophy that there was nothing wrong with killing animals… so long as you thanked the spirit of the animal for dying for you and you showed proper respect for the animal’s spirit by using as much of the animal as you possibly could.
This philosophy learned at such an early age has always had a profound effect on me. Not that I can claim to practice what it preaches. I would say that at I am as much a lapsed Inuit as a I am a lapsed Catholic, except that despite being a good line, it implies that I ever was an Inuit or that I ever followed their philosophy.
The first film that I saw off the porch was Bambi. It shattered me. As Stephen King has noted, most people think that Bambi is an innocuous children’s film, when it is in fact a terrifying horror film. For me Bambi merely confirmed what the Inuit films implied, that Nature was Hobbesian: short, messy and brutal, or as Herzog says in Grizzly Man, “the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” Bambi also confirmed for me that the greatest threat to Nature was a faceless monster called Man.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who recognized Hopper’s quote above about sharks being “eating machines” that the second film that I saw in the theatre was Jaws. I was eight. I have been terrified about sharks ever since. In fact, for years afterwards, I would scout the Simon River behind our house in Morin-Heights for sharks before swimming.
So, when Rob Stewart states flat-out at the beginning of Sharkwater that sharks are beautiful creatures and no threat to Man, a statement that he follows up by hugging a shark, I was gob-smacked. I had no issues with him stating the thesis of his film in the opening moments. Given that I believe that all documentaries are subjective, it is refreshing when a documentary filmmaker admits his bias straight out. But shark hugging is the kind of insane behaviour that makes one wonder if the filmmaker is the aquatic version of Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell.
My suspicions only increased when Stewart falls into company with the Sea Shepherd and what many Atlantic Canadian consider a modern day (ecological) pirate: Paul Watson.
For many in Atlantic Canada, especially those connected to the fishery, Watson is anathema because of his opposition to the seal hunt. Fisherman hate Watson almost as much as they hate seals, who they view as competitors for an ever-dwindling supply of fish. Competitors who are unfortunately extremely photogenic. If seals were ugly, Brigitte Bardot and Paul McCartney probably would not be stomping around on the ice protesting the cull. The seals have no real predators other than man, which is naturally our fault since we killed off all of the seal’s predators to the point of extinction, much in the same way that we massacred wolves only to learn that an unchecked deer population was more dangerous than the wolves could ever have been.
The thing about the seal hunt, while not immune to excesses, it is a very personal hunt. Traditionally a club called a hakapik is used. The seals are killed and skinned individually. There is not the genocidal factory death caused by the long lines that Sharkwater documents, where thousands of marine animals can be killed by one long line in some cases even after it has been abandoned by the boat that originally released it. Not that I am in favour of killing a seal for its pelt and abandoning its body on the ice. To show respect for the animal is to use the whole animal.
On one hand, Paul Watson’s tactics, particularly his habit of sinking ships, terrify and anger Atlantic fishermen. (In the film, Watson boasts of his trophy case posting the names of the ships that he has sunk.) On the other hand, Atlantic Canadians, especially Newfoundlanders, are not above stealing from the Sea Shepherd playbook. Brian Tobin, in particular, practically started a war with Spain when he began seizing Spanish fishing-boats who were parked just outside the legal limit on the edge of the Grand Banks, vacuuming fish out of the ocean and leaving an aquatic desert in their wake. Not that any one in Atlantic Canada has done a very good job of preserving the greatest natural reservoir of fish on the planet, but there is no fury quite so heated as that of a reformed sinner.
On the gripping hand, even Paul Watson’s most vehement critic admits that the man has balls of solid brass, and unlike Bardot and McCartney, he would probably attack the seal hunt even if the seals were as ugly as sin, like say sharks.
In Sharkwater, Watson is invited to Ecuador to help stop illegal shark fishing. On his way to Ecuador, he gets involved in stopping an Ecuadorean ship fishing illegally in Guatemalan waters. When this ship refuses to stop its shark fishing, Watson makes it stop, first using a water cannon and when that proves ineffective by ramming the other ship. Big shock that that particular episode ended badly. Watson and his crew end up arrested in Ecuador and charged with attempted murder and Rob Stewart, as the cameraman who documented the affair, is harrassed because he took the precaution of sending away his footage for safe-keeping before the ship is arrested.
(Presumably the President of Ecuador was more interested in Watson catching Guatemalan poachers in Ecuadorean waters than he was in him catching Ecadorean poachers in Guatemalan waters.)
It is right here, in the part of the film where I was most forcibly reminded of why I was suspicious of Paul Watson in the first place, that Rob Stewart convinced me. The ship being chased is in the process of shark finning, which is to say that it catches sharks, cuts off their fins and throws the dying shark over board to bleed to death. The fin being worth more to a Chinese buyer than the rest of the animal combined. As a Chinese woman in the film explains, it would be like catching a human, cutting his ear off, keeping the ear and then throwing the human back to die.
While trapped in their legal struggles in Ecuador, struggles that Watson later neatly evades with typical hubris by sailing away in broad daylight and beating the Ecuador Coast Guard to the legal limit, Rob Stewart finds what he calls the “Shark-Fin Mafia” a series of warehouses devoted to the trade each of which features on the rooftop the sickening display of thousands of shark fins drying in the sun.
In the graphic novel Shadowplay: The Secret Team, Alan Moore hits on the effective short hand of using swimming pools filled with blood drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz to enumerate the number of victims caused by the CIA’s wars in Latin America. The warehouse rooftops filled with shark fins are Rob Stewart’s swimming pools filled with blood.
In Grizzly Man, an Inuit leader says that Timothy Treadwell’s death was inevitable because while he may have loved Grizzlies, he did not respect them. Herzog drives home the point by cutting to Treadwell baby-talking to the bears. Stewart may love sharks like Treadwell loved bears, but he has the good sense to respect their power. He achieves a similar effect as Herzog by interviewing the Chinese owner of a shark-fin company and by eschewing voice-over narration commentary or hostile questions, allowing the man enough rope to hang himself with his own hypocrisy.
Stewart makes the point and makes it well, that when you remove an apex predator from the top of the food chain, as we are in the process of doing with sharks, especially a food chain that regulates the oxygen supply of the planet, the effects can be unforeseen and catastrophic. Or to put it another way, when you disrespect the spirit of the animal as we are doing by the practice of shark finning, we may all suffer the same fate as Timothy Treadwell, doomed by our failure to respect nature and our failure to take it seriously.
Go to NFB.CA and do a search under Inuit. That will give you three pages of results to choose from.
Despite the fact that Grierson, the guy that helped found the NFB was profoundly suspicious of documentaries on the exotic "Beware the ends of the earth and the exotic: the drama is on your doorstep wherever the slums; are, wherever there is malnutrition, wherever there is exploitation and cruelty." "'You keep your savages in the far place Bob; we are going after the savages of Birmingham,' I think I said to him pretty early on. And we did."), the NFB has always been obsessed with the Inuit.
The Bob referred to above is Robert Flaherty whose Nanook of the North is considered the first documentary.
You will find a very good Co Hoedeman animated film The Owl and the Raven: An Eskimo Legend listed amongst those which is a family favourite. (Co was one of the coolest of my Dad's friends at the NFB. I visited his office frequently when he was making what would become the Oscar winning animated short The Sand Castle and he mischieviously told me that his purpose behind making the movie was to convince the NFB brass to build the world's largest sand-box in his office.)
The all-time classic film on the list and the one that got played over and over and over again on my parent's porch was How to Build an Igloo. The Tuktu series was also a big favourite.
Sharkwater is worth checking out though.
(edited by Llakor on 20.5.07 1902) "Don't Blame CANADA, Blame Yourselves!"
Thanks, I'll be scouring the local video stores sometime this week.
And I will definitely be seeing Sharkwater. I rarely miss a good documentary -- it's the only genre outside of wacky comedies that my girlfriend will actually watch (very short attention span). I'm more intrigued by less-than-modern human cultures than carnivorous fish and those who poach them, so your mentioning of the Inuit films really got my attention.
Lloyd: When I met Mary, I got that old fashioned romantic feeling, where I'd do anything to bone her. Harry: That's a special feeling.
Four Stories of Tuktu is a collection of four Tuktu films in one package produced in 1991. I mention it specifically because it was produced by my Dad! (I hadn't even known that he had done this until I started searcjhing on the NFB site.)
My Dad, for what's it worth, denies any involvement in this. He was laways horrified that we demanded that he replay these films because they offend his aesthetic sensibilities through their over-reliance on voice-over narration. They are very popular with kids though and he was heavily involved in packaging films for schools, so I suspect he got cajoled into putting together the best of the Tuktu series into one package for schools and then immediately erased the project from his memory.
There are also a series of compilations of the Tuktu stories in a series produced in 1999 called In Celebration of Nunavut - Stories of Tuktu.