A big-screen refutation of all those "Shark Weekends" that have suddenly proliferated on certain cable channels, the documentary Sharkwater opens with a montage of movie shark attacks sourced from Jaws, Deep Blue Sea and elsewhere, then redresses the balance by stressing the shark's importance as the big fish in our ecosystem. Our host is the boyish Rob Stewart, a buff Frankie Muniz lookalike who has as obvious a bond with his subjects as Steve Irwin has with crocodiles and Grizzly Man's Timothy Treadwell had with the bears of Alaska. (It's only natural that, at several points in the film, you do rather fear for his existence.) Stewart tours the globe, swimming with hammerheads in the Galapagos, before hitching a ride with environmental activist Paul Watson, who drives his boat - customised with Boadicea-like spikes on its side - into any whaling vessels he encounters; when Watson states "our objective is to rock the boat", it's clear he speaks metaphorically and literally. En route, all manner of pertinent info gets dispensed: despite the fact more people are killed by elephants and tigers each year than by sharks - more people, in fact, are killed by vending machines - the world's shark population has been reduced by ninety percent in recent times.
You could therefore call Sharkwater a PR job, intended to reframe the shark as less aggressor than victim: of (illegal) long-line fishing, the boom in shark-fin products in certain Asian markets, the pollution man has pumped into the ocean, and the widespread indifference of a world prepared to bring in legislation against whaling, but - perhaps wary of the shark's reputation - no comparable laws against shark poaching. Those sharp, sharp teeth, and the primal fear of the monster rising from the deep, so skilfully evoked by Jaws, ensure it's a tough task. Yet Stewart trained as an underwater photographer, and he knows how to put on screen the vast array of beauty in the ocean: with its footage of whales, turtles and tunnel-like shoals of fish, the film frequently reminds us where Finding Nemo found its inspiration. It's a nature doc that goes beyond the call of duty - as much Donal MacIntyre as David Attenborough, Stewart is arrested at one point, contracts a flesh-eating disease elsewhere, and risks the wrath of the "shark fin Mafia" in several secret filming sorties - and which may even change your mind about creatures presented here as a good deal more intelligent and peaceable, and much less venal, than the hunter's hunters. Thinking back to Deep Blue Sea: is it not possible Samuel L. Jackson got chomped because the sharks sensed all those soulless ad campaigns for which the actor was about to sign up?
Sharkwater is available on DVD through Showbox Media; a sequel, Sharkwater: Extinction, opens this Friday, and will be reviewed here in the days ahead.