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Sundance 2021 Review: Playing With Sharks -“An insight into a remarkable woman”

A still from Playing with Sharks by Sally Aitken, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ron & Valerie Taylor.

I’ve been terrified of sharks since my parents introduced me to Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws when I was much too young.  As I’ve gotten older, and learned more about the animal kingdom as part of my education I’ve grown to appreciate these creatures for what they are – survivors from a prehistoric time.  Yet when we think of sharks they are often described as an “eating machine”, a “monster” or a “man-eater”.  They are still seen as the aggressor, a myth perpetuated by even more modern films like Deep Blue Sea, The Meg or even The Shallows.  But one woman has spent the last many decades trying to fight these misconceptions.  Her name is Valerie Taylor, and she’s the focus of Sally Aitken‘s new documentary, Playing With Sharks.

Check out our Sundance coverage

Check out our Sundance coverage
It’s easy to see why Aitken chose Taylor as a subject for this film.  She’s a fascinating woman and by the end of this documentary, if you weren’t aware of her already, you’re sure to see her as a legend.  At the age of 12 she was partially paralyzed by polio, but inspired by the adventures she read in books like Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn, she was determined to walk again.  She did that, and so much more.  Later learning how to spearfish, Taylor became an Australian champion in the male-dominated sport.  It was through this sport that she met her husband, a world champion himself.  But her and Ron eventually hung up their spears (Valerie only ever killed one shark which she visibly regrets) and traded them for cameras. They began careers taking photos and video footage of ocean wildlife, something that only a very few people were doing in the 1960s and 70s.

But the footage that paid the bills was that which had an air of danger, even better if the glamorous and stunning Valerie herself was in it.  The duo began to focus their attention on sharks and never looked back.  The first time Valerie saw a great white shark she notes it was, “Like a freight train coming out of the mist.” But she was never afraid.  In fact Valerie was fearless, an intrepid adventurer that eventually ended up working on the film Blue Water, White Death in 1969 and then on the set of Spielberg’s Jaws in 1974.

The unfortunate aspect of this fictional film that became a box office phenomenon was that audiences saw it as truth.  Jaws fuelled new fears about getting in the ocean and spurred an increased interest in hunting sharks that were now being slaughtered in large numbers.  The Taylors were mortified and couldn’t understand the hostility towards the creatures they spent most of their life with.  Universal even sent them on the talk show circuit to try and counteract the spreading myths about sharks but it was to no avail.  They instead concentrated their efforts on conservation and proving that sharks were not the ‘killing machines’ people were making them out to be.

Director Sally Aitken tells Valerie’s story mainly through the footage that the Taylors themselves had taken over the years, making the movie a feat therefore in editing more than in capturing new work.  Their films from the 50s, 60s and beyond are positively stunning.  With dwindling shark populations, frames of Valerie amongst 100+ whitetip sharks could never happen today, making this footage a historical imprint and a reminder of how much we’ve harmed our oceans.  Playing With Sharks does indeed dive deep into these moments, as it should, but I can’t help but think there is so much more to Valerie’s fascinating personal history that just didn’t fit into the film’s 95 minute run time.

Particularly moving is the end of the film, where Aitken intertwines footage from Valerie’s past to her present.  At 85 years old Valerie needs assistance to squeeze into her wet-suit now, a consequence of the passing of time that both her, and the oceans have felt.  No longer is the ocean the never-ending cornucopia of riches it once was.  Over fishing and shark finning have depleted the populations of the animals Valerie loves.  But what has never disappeared is her enthusiasm for these creatures, the elation and exhilaration she feels with every dive. This has driven her to make vast changes and advances in conservation efforts.  Playing With Sharks is a film that helps Valerie with her lifelong mission of educating the public about sharks and the mutual respect they demand, but along the way we are given insight into a remarkable woman, a pioneer, a legend.

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