The local Cinema Politica group put on a showing of Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater. It’s a big audience for an environmental documentary—perhaps fifty or so people on a cool Thursday night in the North East of England.
The film is Stewart’s love letter to sharks, and his attempt to redress both the myths we hold about sharks and to do something about their impending mass extinction at the hands of humans. Shark populations have fallen by anything between 90%-98% and there are no international regulations limiting or banning shark fishing. It is, according to many of the sources in the film, the greatest global biodiversity catastrophe waiting to happen. Sharks have been around for 400m years, and have shaped the entire ecosystem. Their removal will also shape it.
The film is in places graphic and hard to watch. It shows fins being cut from sharks, and those sharks, mostly dead, but sometimes still alive, being cast back into the water. It shows the billion pound shark industry that spans the globe for a tasteless soup that is a sign of privilege in Asian societies, and for herbal medicines that do not work. It shows the corruption of governments and the desperation of poor people who have little, except this unbounded resource at the edge of the shore as a way to lift themselves out of poverty. It shows the self-importance of stupid humans who are utterly unable to recognise the importance of sentient animal life.
I see C wipe away a tear at one point. I sit as monumentally as I can, thinking of Caravaggio’s sketch of St Matthew as he turns away from the man-made gospel he has just written, thinking: what have we done? Not to be overwhelmed. Why I try so hard is not clear to me.
The first comment, from one of the Cinema Politica organisers, is that although the subject matter is obviously serious and tragic, she felt its treatment was at sometimes ‘crude’ in its manipulations of the emotive nature of the story. From the other side of the room, a small voice confers: ‘agree’.
Two experts from the universities Marine Science Department are invited up to help begin a debate. Both manage the debate excellently. Fair, polite, knowledgeable, and pragmatic, they also negotiate through to the core of what’s being discussed: the emotive nature of what we’ve just witnessed. Without taking sides, they re-emphasise the facts, contribute additional information, bear witness to the contribution that people can make if, as Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd, in the film suggests, we choose to devote our lives to solving these problems.
I dig myself out of the frustration I’m feeling at those two first comments to try and model the experts: how they are handling this, even though I want to ask those first two contributors why they think the sanctity of their emotional freedom is the important thing to be discussed here. Why first comment on the mechanisms of film-making? Didn’t they just see what I saw? Why do they have to detach themselves from the content because they are uncomfortable with the form? Why can’t they just feel, and act?
A reasonable debate gets going. I think it is the same girl who said ‘agree’ who later asks the experts if they think Sea Shepherd’s tactics might turn people against conservation? Expert N is polite and considered in his response. It’s a tough question. But is it? In a world of seven billion people, there is one ship, with perhaps 50-200 people within his organisation, patrolling two thirds of the world’s surface, against the illegal activities taking place, where obvious government and organisational complicity and corruption obstruct them at every turn (Both experts agreed the corruption in the film was credible; from my own time as ELDIS/ID21.org editor on global issues, including illegal fishing, I know this is the case).
What is wrong with this person that she cannot take a step back and do the maths? One ship, perhaps 200 people in the Sea Shepherd organisation. Is it really even worth asking that question? Did she not listen when Paul said his organisation was not a campaigning organisation? Does she know the history of direct action and indirect action? Did she not believe the figures of shark loss, which Expert S has just confirmed, and actually said are often worse?
The last comment of the night: a woman in the row in front, who carefully, softly, expresses what we were, I think, both feeling; a need to respond to those first commenters who felt the film ‘crude’ and ‘too emotive’ – that she didn’t mind that it was emotive; that due to the seriousness of the situation, it needed to be blunt, a slap in the face. I’m glad it was her who said it and not me. I would have been much more antagonistic. All I could think about were the words of Thich Nhat Hahn I’d read earlier in the Ecologist magazine, that perhaps humans would be extinct in 100 years, and that we should begin with those first couple of people who made comments tonight.
I go home. I sign up to the United Conservationists’ email list. I order Brendan Brazier’s book Thrive, on how to combine a vegan and sports lifestyle. I talk to C later about uncertainties and about designations. We don’t talk about the film. The next morning I think about why I fought so hard against being moved. I think about if there is any real difference between my end of the spectrum (the self-dissolving end) and the other end (the self-centred end) where I immediately, ‘crudely’, judged those two girls to sit. It’s differences along that axis that are were the central division between myself and C, but if it just comes round and meets at the two ends anyway…?
This isn’t a long-thought out argument. I’m sure there are holes in it. I’m just fed up with humanity. It’s not that our emotions are manipulated by such films as Sharkwater that are the problem. It is that they usually have to be. Modernity has privileged the self. Self-awareness, self-actualisation, the great Romantic project, has found its self-centred apogee in the industrialised deracination of the planet via the mechanisms of capital production, particularly inequality and poverty. In other words, we’re selfish, and we fuck things up—for other humans as well as animals and plants. And that’s the corrupt governments, the greedy businessmen, and the self-indulgent graduate student whose emotions have been affronted. And I shamefully include myself in that categorisation.
What is ‘crude’ is that our emotions have become more important realities to us than the lives of hundreds of millions of intelligent and beautiful sharks. Instead, in Rob Stewart, and Paul Watson, and those who act, we have models to follow where emotions are in the service of the world, not above it.