Only a handful of film producers have a vision as exceptional as that of Rob Stewart, who steadfastly devoted his life in bringing to spotlight the unsung vulnerabilities of sharks throughout the world. Unfortunately, Stewart’s dream was tragically cut short when he died from hypoxia while filming the sequel and final Sharkwater documentary series deep off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. Like his 2006 prequel, Sharkwater: Extinction (2019) also served as a cinematographic reminder to new and existing audience or activists that although headways had been made during earlier proceedings, the ultimate pledge to save sharks and earth’s ecosystem was far from being achieved. Though Rob Stewart was known to be a vivid shark advocate, who strived to expose the profiteering businesses of shark hunting and shark finning, he was likewise an accomplished filmmaker. He did a great job in filming Sharkwater: Extinction (2019) in terms of content delivery, character development, and mise-en-scene. Sadly, in my opinion the 2019 sequel did not live up to the legacy paved out by Stewart’s first Sharkwater (2006) film. It feels as if the entirety of the project was a rushed job as it is hindered by inadequate production values and poor narrative development. The ultimate disappointment about the film was when acting filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson, who took over directorship from Rob Stewart after his death, turned part of the film into a memorial which nullify the original idea Stewart had in mind—to reverse the stereotypes men have on Sharks.
Throughout the narrative, Stewart and his team advocated for shark awareness and protection by debunking the stereotypes that mainstream culture had on sharks. This could be seen when the filmmakers travelled globally to places including Africa, Europe, Latin America, and even the U.S. coasts of Florida and California to capture various imageries regarding the exploitation of sharks worldwide. From my personal standpoint, the aerial shots of the shark fin batches in Costa Rica at the beginning of the film was effective because it highlighted the dubious effects of the documentary. For example, the elevated shot used here gave me the impression that the narrative was filmed illegally by means of privacy infringement as it was characterized by jarring jump cuts and uncanny sounds. The dynamic angle of the shot taken also complimented the unsettling effect of the film since it broke a major rule in film making, the rule-of-thirds, and thus making the shot awkward but somehow memorable. Another effective mise-en-scene used in Sharkwater: Extinction (2019) was the shot of a shark being trapped on a giant drift nets just off the coast of Catalina Island, California. In my opinion, this scene was an effective use of prop and composition to showcased human cruelty towards sharks. The used of tight frame and low-angle shots were powerful in capturing the slow death of the shark which was emphasized by the gloomy blue lighting from under the ocean. The wickedness showed here also made me empathize the shark population and sympathize with Rob’s goal to save them from senseless slaughter. Finally, the scene of the same shark slowly dying from being tightly imprisoned by a drift just made my heart sank.
It is hard to say whether the poor narrative development was due to Stewart’s untimely death or Gunnarsson’s ineffective directions, but the documentary was definitely subpar in my opinion. While solid contents were undoubtedly being presented within the film—for example, the director consistently addressed the urgency and significance of shark conservation by incorporating scientific data and qualitative judgements from experts—the documentary spearheaded in way too many directions without going in depth. Unfortunately, this created frustration for me and other viewers as well when the film constantly jumped from personal assessments to journal inquiries and then finally to scientific findings as depicted in various scenes within the documentary. What the director should have done here was to stick with a specific documenting method; for example, if the film started off with the traditional voice-over narration, which it did, the director should continue with that method rather than switching over to video logging. Another strategy which I would recommend for a smoother film development is that the director should stay focused on the topic he is covering before moving on to another, so that the confusions can be negated. Repetitive plot is another deficiency that I think hindered the overall development of the film. The constant display of fishermen catching and selling sharks throughout the documentary was redundant and overwhelming. None of the mistakes mentioned, however, were comparable to the fact that Gunnarsson turned part of the documentary into a memorial. The director might have done it out of respect for Rob Stewart, but that did not stop it from tarnishing Stewart’s initial purpose “to make people fall in love with sharks.” Thus, I would reckon that if Gunnarsson’s purpose was to pay tribute to Stewart, he should have just made the film into a biography as opposed to an activist documentary, and vice versa if his original idea was advocate for shark awareness. All that being said, I still believe it is only fair for me to give the director credit for his work in Sharkwater: Extinction (2019), which entails valuable contents that not only address a social issue but also initiated a movement.
Though the plot development was mediocre at best, the director compensated for his failure within the documentary by mean of characterization. Unlike narrative films, Rob Stewart did not develop the characters in Sharkwater: Extinction (2019), but rather cast actual people who aided with the originality of the project and keeping the narrative truthful. The main character casted throughout the film was director Rob Stewart himself. From the documentary, it could be concluded that Stewart was inspirational, passionate, and courageous among other characteristics based on his true intentions. Stewart’s steadfast yet charming characteristics not only made it clear to the audience that his love for sharks was a lifelong affair, but it also provided the audience a greater understanding of their vital importance to the ecosystem. Other than himself, Rob Stewart also interviewed and casted many static characters from distinct backgrounds within Sharkwater: Extinction (2019). Perhaps the main reason for including a diverse but linear cast in the film was to eliminate bias and to create sympathy amongst the audience. Credence of this was shown respectively when marine conservationist Randall Arouz voiced out against the new president-elect of Costa Rica for reversing shark conservation policies, or when a Miami shark trophy hunter rejected the theory that sharks are becoming virtually endangered as merely a “Shark Week propaganda”. Even more effective was the casting of marine biologist Diego Cardeñosa within the documentary. Here, Diego mentioned that we are unwittingly consuming and utilizing commercial products that are laced with shark DNA high in mercury and other toxic concentrations. That was powerful because Cardeñosa’s role here was to help raised social awareness and to drive the audience in taking action against such inhumane activities; which in my opinion, the director did a great job as I was moved by the jarring information presented.
From a personal standpoint, I think that the production values within Sharkwater: Extinction (2019) were adequate. I liked how the foley artist made use of quality sound techniques in the documentary to enhanced ambient sounds because not only did he promoted the originality, but he also upheld the naturalness of the film. For example, the squawking of the seagulls and the swishing of the waves near the Costa Rican shores were used to enhance the natural beauty of a tropical paradise. Also, the scenes at the fish markets and at the ports—accentuated with diegetic sounds such as the knifing or butchering of sharks and the loading of shark carcasses onto the ships respectively—contributed to the realism of the documentary as they were characterized by raw unprocessed sounds. Sound bridges, especially rock music, were also added to facilitate quick transition from one scene or location to another. The background music was likewise effective in my opinion because some helped to induce thought while others added to the overall effects of the cinematography. To me the serene background music played during the narrations helped to intensify the director’s messages and encouraged marine sustainability awareness amongst the audience and me specifically. The high intensity music, on the other hand, complimented the mood of the narrative as shown in the scene where the shark hunters were shooting at Stewart and his team while they were filming the documentary in California. During the beginning of Sharkwater: Extinction (2019), natural lighting was introduced but then became gradually darker and more low-key towards the end the film. The realistic lighting incorporated here made the documentary appeared credible to me. This is key in documentary filmmaking because it is the most effective way to gain support from your audience for your work. The low-key tone at the end of the film additionally galvanized Gunnarsson’s tribute to Rob’s unfortunate loss by creating a gloomy tone during the ending scenes of the narrative. The camera angles were also naturalistic as they were often taken from Rob Stewart’s point of view. Even though the point-of-view shots were successful in maintaining authenticity, the vibrating effects created from such a camera technique was counterproductive because it made the film seemed more like a video log as opposed to an activist documentary. Additionally, the simple cutting and editing techniques used throughout the film in my opinion was amateurish as the production lacked effort and creativity.
All in all, Sharkwater: Extinction (2019) was a worthy watch in my opinion because it was entertaining and contained a great deed of educational contents. However, if the documentary was to be judge based on filmic qualities, I would personally grade it as average. This was due to the fact that the film was a mixture of surprise and disappointment. Rob Stewart surprised his audience with excellent character development and mise-en-scene, but because of his untimely death, the acting producers failed to deliver the final product with the same greatness it started with. The disappointment presented here were the subpar production elements—sound effects, lighting, camera angles, and editing—and inferior narrative development for a world class documentary.