Much is made of the notion that it must be the current generation of young people who will start to rebuild the planet, righting the wrongs of those before them. No one embodies the spirit of global change more than Madison Stewart, currently travelling the world with her documentary Shark Girl, a moving account of her life amongst the ocean’s alpha predators and a blistering indictment of the brutal exploitation they suffer. Her actions and words are generating a groundswell of global support; just don’t call her and activist…
“I hate being called an activist,” the 20 year-old Queenslander says with a laugh from New York City, where she has slotted in a few minutes to chat with SCREEN-SPACE as part of a hectic US media schedule. “People hear that term and think that what we do is part of some ultra-radical green agenda, when the truth is I am just a normal Australian person who loves our oceans. I can’t just sit down and let injustice occur.”
Shark Girl traces Stewart’s deep bond with the ocean, from her childhood living on the family boat on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to her acceptance of the role as global ambassador for shark conservation. “I spent more time growing up in the ocean with sharks than I ever did with people, so to me they are just such a normal, everyday part of my life,” she recalls. The film features footage shot by her father of a pre-teen Madison swimming with schools of reef sharks and her first dive amongst Tiger sharks. “I couldn’t imagine growing up without them.”
Offering an international perspective with footage from Mexico, Palau and The Bahamas, the film balances Stewart’s personal journey with insights into the worldwide slaughter and trading of sharks. At times, the footage is harrowing and the truths behind fishing industry claims remarkably affecting. “The laws pertaining to our oceans are allowing destruction and failing to protect the protected species,” she says, hoping that education will inspire action. “Reaction from the public is now required, the kind of reaction that I have been having for so long that it has become a normal part of my life. As long as the injustices keep occurring, we have to fight back.”
Although the filming duties on Shark Girl went to co-directors Gisela Kaufman and Carsten Olt (pictured, right), Stewart is an accomplished underwater photographer with several documentary shorts to her credit. The latest is Obstruction is Justice, compiled from footage while on location in Western Australia to cover the introduction of the controversial shark culling policy. Says Stewart, “What is happening in Western Australia is an unfair, misguided gross injustice. The culling will never stop shark attacks and any shark expert will tell you that. To see these amazing animals, these beautiful Tiger Sharks, being so randomly killed is such a tragic thing.”
The footage captures fisheries officers breaching ocean-going rules and threatening the lives of Stewart and her crew. The stakes were clearly high for both parties. “It took a rather harsh turn,” she acknowledges. “My decision to film sharks in WA turned into this much bigger thing, a movement (that) was threatened with court action. They tried to take our footage from us, just because we wanted to film what the government was doing to the shark population.” But the fierceness of the fight against the state government’s policy only succeeded in highlighting her presence and the callousness of the cull. “Taking a stance like that is becoming a necessity for the everyday person and there were a lot of everyday people who became involved for the first time while we were in WA,” she says, proudly.
Madison Stewart understands that the inherent fear/thrill response human beings have towards sharks will be hard to alter. “Sharks are one of those few animals that we have not established control over. I can understand how that can be scary for people,” she admits. It is an easily exploited avenue for a modern media seeking a fresh sensationalistic angle. “(They) still love a good shark attack story and still exploit the images created by Jaws. That kind of media is just not realistic.”
What the young documentary maker does hope to achieve with her films and growing profile is a more balanced social acceptance of the ocean’s greatest predators. “I don’t need people to love sharks or not be scared of them,” she says, “I just need to people to respect them.”