The writer-director Eli Roth is on a small boat where a fisherman has pulled a Mako shark from the waters. Roth tries to negotiate for the shark’s life — he’ll pay for it if they just let it go — but the fisherman uses a baseball bat (not unlike the weapon wielded by Roth’s Sgt. Donny Donowitz in “Inglorious Basterds”) to kill the shark. Roth is clearly shaken by the experience — and so are we, and not for the last time in the sometimes difficult to watch but invaluable and insightful documentary titled “Fin,” streaming globally on Discovery+.
If it’s mid-summer, that means it’s time for the annual “Shark Week” festival on Discovery and Discovery+ plus a myriad of “SharkFest” offerings on NatGeo — with some 45 hours of shark-related unscripted specials on the former and another 21 hours of fresh programming on the latter. I urge you to place “Fin” on the top of your shark-viewing list.
“Fin” writer-director-producer-star Roth is best known for horror films such as “Cabin Fever” (2003) and the “Hostel” movies (I’m a big fan of his bat-bleep crazy, Keanu Reeves-starring erotic thriller “Knock Knock”) but he describes this documentary as “the most terrifying film I’ve ever made,” and that’s no hyperbole.
With photographer Michael Muller delivering visuals that alternate between the breathtakingly beautiful and the horrifyingly brutal, Roth travels the world for an in-depth look at the vast and sometimes criminal network of fishermen, suppliers, sellers and buyers involved in the mass slaughter of sharks — all because of demand for shark fin soup and other supposedly “exotic” dishes. (Shark flesh, cartilage, skin and livers are also used to make supplements, makeup and skincare products.) We’re told some 100 million sharks are slaughtered every year, leaving a number of species threatened with extinction.
Shark finning is a horrific practice. The shark is often still alive when its fins are sliced off — and then the mutilated shark is tossed back into the water, where it will suffocate or bleed to death or be killed. The passionate and empathetic and committed-to-the-cause Roth talks to the fishermen in poor seaside villages who have almost no other way of making a living; the sometimes shady shopkeepers in Hong Kong selling all manner of shark fins; activists and oceanographers who have dedicated themselves to educating the public about sharks and saving them from mass slaughter, and a food writer and a restaurateur who talk about how shark fin soup became a symbol of wealth and status in Chinese culture, often served at weddings at other gatherings, because it was a dish favored by the imperial family.
The reality is shark fin soup is garbage soup. As “Fin” shows in graphic detail, shark fins are often piled up by the thousands in unsanitary conditions — and they’re essentially tasteless. The flavor, such as it is, comes from the broth and from additives. Myths about shark fins curing cancer or boosting sexual potency are just that: myths. (Thankfully, many in the younger generation of Chinese find shark fin soup to be out of fashion. Meanwhile, the sale of shark fins has been banned in Illinois since 2013.)
For all its sobering reporting and imagery, “Fin” also has moments of pure beauty, as when Roth literally swims among sharks, who greet him with mild curiosity and a benign approach. Despite the handful of stories every year about a shark attacking a human, we know the truth: We’re the predators, and they’re the prey.