Where will you be on Earth Day, which is April 22? Filmmaker/environmentalist Rob Stewart will be promoting his new documentary “Revolution,” which sounds an alarm about saving our planet from toxic danger before it’s too late.
The Canadian biologist/photographer created a splash nearly a decade ago with his debut documentary “Sharkwater,” which exposed the ecologically dangerous and morally questionable practice of harvesting shark fins. Filming in sometimes dangerous situations, the intrepid storyteller brought to light the overfishing of this remarkable species for its fins, which had resulted in a 90 percent decline in its population. The film warned that sharks were headed for extinction if this practice continued.
Stewart follows up that documentary with “Revolution,” which aims to raise awareness of other ecological dangers facing our planet — in particular, ocean acidification. Traveling to 15 countries over a four-year period, Stewart and his team documented how the coral reefs may be gone in 50 years, if not sooner, because of ocean acidification, which is caused by elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the water caused by manmade pollution.
Stewart recently spoke by phone to Not Impossible Now about how he is using modern technology — tools ranging from social media to an online distribution campaign to a ready-to-use Web-based curriculum for teachers to share with their students — to spread the word about “Revolution.” Though the documentary is appropriate for viewers of all ages, it is specifically meaningful to the younger generation, who will inherit the ecological woes that earlier generations have created and be responsible for resolving them.
NIN: On therevolutionmovie.com, there are tools listed where teachers/educators can show the documentary to their students and incorporate those ideas into their curriculum. What kind of feedback have you gotten thus far?
Rob Stewart: The response has been great. It took years for “Sharkwater” to get fully integrated into school curriculums, but now everywhere I go, teachers tell me that they’ve shown “Sharkwater” in their classes for years as part of their curriculum.
So it was really important to us with “Revolution,” to build that into the front end, to let people know the movie’s going to be released as a tool for good.
The uptake, so far, has been great. I’ve got some pretty extensive plans on what I’d like to do with the movie. I plan to break it into sections so you can view it as an e-book, so you can stop it at any point and dig down and get more information on particular issues in that section. I’m sure once we’ve cleared (the theatrical release) of this, we can pull something like that off.
“Revolution” is going to be released as a fundraising and awareness tool. How are you getting the word out about that?
Stewart: We’re just launching that right now. We’re telling the conservation community right now to get ready for it, but the whole major launch is going to be April 22. At that point, any conservation group can sign up and start using “Revolution” as a tool for itself.
There are some smaller groups that I’m on the board of and have been working with for years that already are already working their magic with it.
How is the film being distributed?
Stewart: Our distribution model right now is entirely based on new technology allowing it to happen. One of the important things to me in releasing it was to do it in a way that it could do a great deal of good, where it could be used by the conservation community and where we could eventually give it away for free, we could target the greatest amount of views as possible.
There’s a technology distribution platform called Yekra that incentivizes everybody with a portion of the profits of this film. In this way, we can give “Revolution” to any conservation group, be it someone big, like Conservation International, or somebody small, and they can put it on their website where they can sell it and they can sell DVDs, stream downloads and keep half of the profit. Little pop-ups will appear during the film and at the end, directing people to the conservation group’s campaign and fundraising pages.
It’s never really been done this way before, and it’s a bit of a leap of faith doing it this way. But this is the biggest movement that’s ever existed. This movement should be winning the battle to save our world, and it’s failing. I kind of think part of the reason it’s failing is because there is not enough awareness going on. If we can change that by releasing a movie, then we’ll be able to achieve a great deal of good.
“Sharkwater” came out in 2006. Since then, the way people watch movies has changed. They can watch them on their handheld devices, and there are new ways for filmmakers like you to communicate directly with viewers. For example, you have various forms of social media that you can use to deliver your message and get feedback.
Stewart: Yeah. When I made “Sharkwater,” I didn’t make it for young people or for schools, particularly. I made it to be as cool as possible for me. But when it really began to connect with kids, and kids started bonding with it, that’s when I realized I should be making films to suit that audience. “Revolution,” as you can see, is skewed a little younger. Adults can enjoy it, but the general idea and concept is to appeal to young people and position it as a challenge to their generation. This is their future. It’s kind of like the rallying call for them.
In “Revolution,” one of your interviewees that really stands out is Felix Finkbeiner, a teenage environmental activist/protester who you interviewed at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun. How did you meet him?
Stewart: I just happened to find him. We were ripping around, interviewing all of these scientists and then we saw these young kids digging up the lawn and planting trees. So we walked up to them and asked them what it was all about, and he had such an eloquent and simple way of putting it.
You also visit a teacher in Saipan, whose sixth grade class started a letter-writing campaign to convince their government leaders to ban the import of shark fins after viewing “Sharkwater.”
Stewart: It kind of proves to us that changing the world isn’t that difficult as long as we try. A lot of places in the world where people have a say in their government, it’s clear that we can get these governments to do something as long as we tell them what we think they should do.
You also suggest that people start making changes themselves and not wait for their government to do something as well.
Most documentarians who deal with climate change and other environmental subjects never mention their own carbon footprint, but you do in this film. Can you talk about your decision to include that element in the film?
Stewart: It’s part of our evolution as a species to confront our own consumption and our own destruction. It comes down to those fundamental questions like, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” If I’m here on this planet and just destroying stuff, is that a good thing?
For me to try to do some good in the world, I’ve got to weigh the options, because if I try to make a movie on Skype or I just use stock footage, I don’t think I’d be able to make as good a film. My rationale is that I had to burn some carbon to pull this off. I want people to start thinking that way: If we are going to do some damage to the planet then we can use the rest of our lives for good and we can do less damage to the planet.
It comes back to the population scenario as well: How many people should this planet hold? Do we want 7-9 billion people living in an environment like sub-Saharan Africa, living in huts and eating entirely plant-based diet and not moving around the world? Or do we want a billion people that can move around the world and live like we do in the West? It’s a difficult question to answer because no one person can give you the definite answer. It’s a really difficult and delicate situation, but by bringing it up in that way, we can get people thinking along those lines.
“Sharkwater” brought awareness to shark fin harvesting and subsequently led to the ban of that practice worldwide. What type of change do you hope “Revolution” will bring about?
Stewart: I’d like for people to understand their relationship with life better so that they understand that it’s life that gives us our food, our water and our air. I’d like for people to start supporting conservation and getting involved in conservation.
For young people, I think this is the task of our generation. We’re going to have to confront this, or we’re going to live in a world of lack and starvation and crisis. So I’m hoping that young people who see “Revolution” will realize there is an opportunity for them to be a hero for an ecosystem, a species [and] for the future, and find meaning in their lives by working for good.
In a time when we’re stuck on social networks, drugs, fast cars and loneliness, we’ve got the issue and task that humanity has always been begging for that will bring down borders and divisions of gender. It’s kind of going to be that unifying feeling that’s going to help unite us.
I’m hoping, first and foremost, to educate as many people on the planet as possible, so our morals engage and our morals help guide us to a world that works. And I hope part of that is inspiring young people to be all they can be and get involved in this.
Are you working on something else now?
Stewart: Next, we’re doing a seahorse love story. Remember the pygmy seahorse from the film? That’s very much a trailer teaser for our next movie (“Dragon Reef”). It’s like “March of the Penguins,” but with pygmy seahorses, who go on a quest for love on one of the most dangerous reefs on earth.
What’s the status of it?
Stewart: We’re looking to get it off the ground right now. We’re lining up partners to fund it, but they still have to pitch it and get it off the ground.
Do you have celebrity endorsers?
Stewart: We’re looking for them. I can’t say who they are until everything is solidified. That’s the strategy moving forward. If a celebrity says something, the entire world looks in that direction. That’s something that could take me months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to do. So we’re going to try and make movies now and moving forward with a celebrity and a billionaire.
Top photo courtesy of the “Revolution” documentary