review: playing with sharks
Valerie Taylor in Playing With Sharks (2021)
The 1975 film Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling book of the same name, was heralded as the first Hollywood blockbuster. The story of a great white shark that terrorizes a New England resort town took home three Oscars and spawned numerous sequels. Beyond industry figures, the global phenomenon struck quite a fearful chord with audiences. The brilliance of Jaws is that the shark is rarely seen in the film. Not knowing the shark’s whereabouts, accompanied by hearing John Williams’ ominous score impending danger, makes the story all the more frightening. Jaws played on the vastness of the ocean, the fear of the unknown. This fictional story was done so realistically that it understandably instilled paranoia among audiences. The fear of sharks was far outweighing the actual danger these creatures inflict. When asked about the danger of swimming with sharks, legendary marine conservationist Valerie Taylor maintains “even a cup of tea can burn you.” Taylor, who was sought out to assist Spielberg on Jaws, quickly realized that perhaps the aftermath of this film would have an unfortunate impact on her own work. People were afraid to venture out into the oceans. People went on shark killing sprees. For Valerie Taylor, who dedicated her life’s work to protecting sharks, the Jaws experience was further encouragement to change our scientific understanding of sharks forever.
Playing With Sharks is a fascinating documentary about Australian conservationist, shark expert, underwater photographer, cinematographer, filmmaker, and former competitive spear fisher Valerie Taylor. What a life she has lived. Taylor forged her path as a fearless diver, daring to swim alongside sharks outside of cages and using herself as bait to film the real sharks for Jaws. The documentary follows her passion, strength, and dedication towards protecting sharks and changing the fearful conversations around them. Director Sally Aitken paints an adventurous and loving portrait of Taylor’s remarkable career, advocacy, and disarming level of confidence. The documentary jumps in the deep end with a sensibility and fierceness similar to its subject. All the concerns fellow biologists had about sharks, Valerie did not. The sheer presence of a shark would excite her, and the thrill of being around them gives off an infectious energy. Her fearlessness stood out from the crowd, as did being a woman in a male-dominated field of spear fishing and skin diving. Valerie and her husband Ron, conservationist and world spear fishing champion, were at the top of their trade in the 1960s. They were the first to film great white sharks without cage protection. Valerie’s fame skyrocketed after the release of their 1971 documentary ‘Blue Water, White Death’ which follows their search for a great white shark. Valerie was considered a revelation; everyone admired her strength, how she ventured into the unknown and took risks.
One of the risks Valerie took was in the form of her involvement with Jaws. When Universal Pictures contacted her and Ron to ask if Peter Benchley’s book would make a good feature film, the couple read it and said yes. Benchley is quoted as saying he’d have never written the book if he’d known the outcome of the film. For a good chunk, Playing With Sharks becomes more of a behind-the-scenes Jaws documentary about how the animal’s reputation as a horrifying killer was fueled. Sally Aitken lingers on Valerie’s disappointment and frustration of not being listened to. During promotion for the film, she would insist that while it’s a story about dangerous sharks, it’s a fictional story done well. The experience only made her intentions clearer: she was determined to change people’s understanding of sharks and the threats they face, as only 10% of the world’s shark populations survive today. The documentary also touches briefly on shark finning, the horrific targeting of these animals for an international market that boomed in the 1980s. Among the ‘reasons’ given: a demand for shark fin soup.
The documentary combines archival footage and present-day interviews with Valerie, which amplifies just how long she’s been advocating for the oceans and its toothy inhabitants. To this day, every dive she makes has the potential to be a great adventure. Underwater exploration is something many people are afraid to do, one reason being a fear of the unknown. Diving through the water is like being transported to another world, and the exhilaration coming up from those dives is enormous. Once Valerie got her teeth stuck in shark advocacy and ocean exploration, she never let go. Her sheer determination and passion, vowing to dive in a wheelchair if she has to, fill up the screen with admirable energy. Sally Aitken lets her subject lead the way in this real-life tale of a woman’s extraordinary life. Playing With Sharks is an adrenaline rush in which many viewers, shark enthusiasts or not, can find moments to appreciate.
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