This review of “Playing With Sharks” was published following the film’s premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
“Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story” tells a tale right out of mythology, with the hunter becoming the protector, helping to save the animals whom she had previously helped to portray as monsters. In capturing the work of legendary filmmaker and conservationist Valerie Taylor, this Sundance premiere from director Sally Aitken also offers a front-row look at an extraordinary life.
It helps, of course, that Valerie makes the ideal documentary subject — candid and outgoing in interviews, discussing a life that’s not only exciting and full of purpose, but also one that took place, to a large extent, in front of cameras. Aitken and editor Adrian Rostirolla make wonderful use of a plethora of archival materials, from 1950s newsreels demonstrating teenage Valerie’s prowess at spearfishing to footage shot by Valerie and her late husband Ron Taylor, both acclaimed underwater photographers and cinematographers.
Spearfishing was what originally brought Valerie and Ron together; she was the ladies’ champion and he was the world champion — in an era when it clearly never occurred to anyone that a lady could also be the very best — although they both turned their back on the sport after they witnessed a brutal shark hunt that took place after a friend of theirs was bitten.
Early on, we hear Valerie compare sharks to dogs, in that they’re potentially dangerous but they don’t have to be, provided you keep your distance and don’t spook them. Later in the film, we see her shooting images for a calendar, and she gets the shot she wants – a hammerhead swimming over coral, the setting sun overhead – by training the hammerhead to put himself exactly where she wants him. She explains that she would attract the shark with a piece of fish, rewarding him for swimming to her the right way, and bopping him on the nose for coming towards her at a different angle. Take away the air bubbles, and she’s a shark whisperer.
The idea of sharks as non-threatening and even friendly has always been a hard sell, of course, and never harder after the appearance of two films in which Valerie and Ron participated: “Blue Water, White Death,” a 1971 documentary, and “Jaws,” which had her operating one of the cameras during the sequences involving real sharks. The Steven Spielberg hit was a game-changer in any number of ways, not the least of which was how it inspired the worldwide slaughter of sharks by terrified people who saw the fish as monsters that existed only to devour human beings.
Peter Benchley’s widow Wendy, now president of the organization Shark Savers, turns up in “Playing with Sharks” to recall that her late husband said he never would have written the book if he had known it would lead to such an oceanic massacre. Similarly, Valerie and Ron took it upon themselves to undo some of the damage, writing letter after letter to government officials to press for protection for sharks, and giving countless interviews in the hopes of improving the species’ P.R. problems. The two even swam in chain mail and allowed sharks to bite their arms to prove that those legendary jaws don’t clamp down hard.
The documentary beautifully captures Taylor’s ongoing work as an artist (although compressing her life into one movie means they skip certain facets of it, including some of her feature-film work) and as a preservationist, with laudatory interviews from Jean-Michel Cousteau and other protectors of underwater life. Her personal life factors in as well, from her exuberance over exploring the ocean to her love story with Ron, which ended tragically in 2012 following his battle with leukemia. Aitken’s narrative throughline for the film is Valerie’s preparations for a dive in Bali, the first time she would do so without Ron by her side, and it’s an effective way to intertwine Valerie’s personal and professional lives.
For many viewers, sharks are right up there with rats and spiders on their list of phobias, but even people who felt nervous about stepping into a bathtub after “Jaws” might find themselves giving these denizens of the deep the benefit of the doubt, thanks both to Taylor’s decades of advocacy and Aitken’s moving portrait of grace and compassion in and out of the water.
“Playing With Sharks” premieres on Disney+ on July 23.