Sundance 2021: “Playing With Sharks” is a lovely undersea documentary

Playing With Sharks

The colorful life of Australian diver and conservationist Valerie Taylor is examined in a fun and fascinating film.

Unless you are “in sharks,” as Ellen Brody once inelegantly put it, there is a good chance that you may not know who Valerie Taylor is. And yet, along with her husband Ron, she is probably as much responsible for our feelings towards sharks, both negative and positive, that we have today. With Sally Aitken’s documentary Playing With Sharks, Taylor takes center stage to recount her life story and how she came to become one of the world’s leading shark experts and conservationists.

Her story is pretty incredible, as it turns out. Growing up in Australia, she survived a bout with polio at the age of 12 and when she was 15, she taught herself to scuba dive and became an expert spear fisher, winning numerous competitions in a sport almost entirely dominated by men. It’s there that she met Ron Taylor, a fellow diver who also designed his own cameras for underwater photography. They married in 1963 and began working together on films featuring Valerie swimming amidst the creatures of the sea, capturing the first footage of a great white shark in 1966.

Thanks in large part to Valerie’s fearlessness amongst the denizens of the deep (and, perhaps not coincidentally, her good looks), the films proved to be popular. At the same time, they became increasingly disenchanted with the burgeoning shark hunting industry and eventually vowed that they would only shoot them with cameras. They were eventually recruited to participate in a documentary project revolving around a search for sharks throughout South Africa and South Australia and the resulting film, Blue Water, White Death (1971), became a big hit, in large part due to the hair-raising footage that she and Ron managed to capture.

[Taylor] is probably as much responsible for our feelings towards sharks, both negative and positive, that we have today.

This led to the two of them being contacted by the producers of Jaws (1975) and they would go on to provide all the footage of live sharks seen in the film, most notably in the sequence where the shark attacks Hooper while he is trapped underwater in the cage. While Taylor’s anecdotes about their work on the film may be familiar to the hardcore fans, they make for some of the most amusing moments in the documentary. We learn, for example, that in order to convincingly present the idea of a 24-foot great white (a species that usually only grows to half that length), they hit upon the idea of building a cage half the normal size and recruiting a smaller diver—one who, as it turns out, did not actually know how to dive and who panicked when the sharks began to approach.

Their work helped make Jaws into one of the most successful films ever made but it, along with Blue Water, White Death, had the paradoxical effect of demonizing the very same creatures that they cared so much about. During the latter part of the film, the focus shifts to the efforts that Valerie and Ron would make, often flying in the face of what was considered to be scientific fact, to rehabilitate their reputations and prevent them from being hunted into extinction.

As documentaries go, Playing with Sharks does not exactly break new ground. However, in this case, that is not such a problem because Aitken has two considerable elements working in her favor. The first is a generous helping of the often-stunning footage shot by Valerie and Ron throughout their career, which still comes across as equal parts beautiful, mysterious and hair-raising. The second is the sprightly presence of Valerie Taylor herself, who recounts her life’s work in a smart, informative and incredibly engaging manner. Even in her 80s, she continues to dive and advance the cause of sharks and their conservation. The end result is a entertaining look at a fascinating woman whose willingness to interact with and embrace a species most people are taught to fear would go on to have an enormous impact in the worlds of science and popular culture.

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CategoriesSundance 2021
Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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