SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Director Sally Aitken’s documentary Playing With Sharks contains three compelling stories, any one of which would make for a fully formed subject for a film. The primary narrative is of diver, marine conservationist, and longtime icon of Australia, Valerie May Taylor. Taylor has lived her life in the sea, and now in her 80s, she is still diving and advocating for marine conservation.
The second mesmerizing story is about the sharks themselves. Before Taylor and her husband, Ron discovered that sharks are not necessarily dangerous animals, sharks were all universally considered so. Ron and Valerie swam with sharks, photographed them, and learned how to coexist safely with them.
Finally, there is the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Valerie and Ron working for a young Steven Spielberg while shooting the live shark footage for Jaws and consulting with him on that movie.
Despite efforts to save them (including those of Valerie and Don Taylor), so many sharks have been killed, either through commercial shark finning (for traditional medicine and shark fin soup), entanglement in commercial fishing gear, or from habitat degradation and climate change, that their numbers will drop into the endangered species range if the curve continues on the current trajectory.
“…a lively testament to a remarkable woman who began as a hunter of sea creatures but morphed into a passionate advocate.“
Throughout her life, Taylor explored the sea and her footage from a lifetime of diving and underwater camera work fleshes out the documentary. It provides a visual history of not only her adventures but of the progress of marine cinematography as well. Add in the priceless data collected on shark behavior, and Taylor’s contributions truly add up to an impressive life, well-lived. She seems to have always been one of those extraordinary people who is driven to do more than average.
Aitken captures Taylor’s passion for sharks expressed through her fearless willingness to take whatever risks are necessary in order to get closer to them. The movie is a lively testament to a remarkable woman who began as a hunter of sea creatures but morphed into a passionate advocate. She’s come to see sharks as pets that she can romp with.
Covering such a vast stretch of time, Playing With Sharks exposes cultural issues that we acknowledge but haven’t yet entirely dealt with. In her younger years, nearly every reporter writing about Taylor mentioned her appearance. They seemed astonished that someone they repeatedly described as a beautiful woman could not only participate in the rough and tumble world of diving with the men but could be competitive, to the point of often beating those men to the trophies. Taylor smiled through all this and just stayed her course, but looking back at her treatment in the press is a good reminder of how times have changed, but also of how they need to change more.
As she’s grown older, Taylor has been beset with the usual aches and pains of advanced age. She’s not satisfied, unlike most people, with sitting comfortably and telling the old stories. Playing With Sharks shows us Taylor traveling to Fiji, getting help with the now painful process of putting on her custom pink wetsuit, and diving to see her beloved sharks. Anyone seeking motivation, or just looking for inspiration, will marvel at the life story of Valerie Taylor, her sharks, and her love of the sea. She is a treasure, as is Sally Aitken for bringing her story to the screen.
Playing With Sharks screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…[sharks] numbers will drop into the endangered species range if the curve continues on the current trajectory."