THE STORY – Most people aren’t thrilled at the chance to be surrounded by a shiver of sharks, but Valerie Taylor isn’t most people. A fearless diver, marine conservationist, and Australian icon, she dedicated most of her life to exploring the beauty of sharks—forming a sought-after underwater cinematography team with her husband, Ron, and even shooting the real sharks in Jaws. Director Sally Aitken captures Taylor’s enduring passion for these intimidating creatures and her unflinching willingness to connect with them in their element.
THE CAST – Valerie Taylor
THE TEAM – Sally Aitken (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
Valerie Taylor, the daring subject of the new documentary “Playing with Sharks,” may be most known to film fans for capturing footage of live sharks for Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” However, this cinematic legacy is surpassed by her groundbreaking work on shark and marine life research and conservation. As such, she’s a natural fit to be the subject of a documentary that chronicles her life’s work. But while “Playing with Sharks” does feature exciting looks at her work in the oceanic world of sharks, most of the film is made up of archival footage presented with mostly explanatory commentary. It doesn’t, forgive the pun, dive as deep on such an important subject as Taylor warrants. While it features undeniably interesting historical moments, the filmmaking on display in “Playing with Sharks” does not equal Taylor and her colleagues’ archival footage in aquatic action.
Taylor has led a groundbreaking life both above and below the surface. What began as a routine act of spearfishing turned into a passion for diving and the creatures that could only be seen underwater. She quickly rose through the ranks of the diving world, advancing through a male-dominated field thanks to her natural charm and vast knowledge. She rose up in the industry, which included being the center of nature documentaries exploring the still-burgeoning study of sharks, for example. Most interestingly, she was on the expedition that captured the first footage of a live great white shark in the water. In these moments of the documentary, we are shown an ample amount of footage from films that depict her diving and swimming amongst sharks and surveying their world. This is almost exclusively accompanied by observational and informative commentary that doesn’t elaborate much on the footage beyond that. The archival film is impressive and fascinating in and of itself, but to essentially use second-hand footage to tell the story of the documentary undersells what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish.
The second half of the film explores Taylor’s hand in making “Jaws” and how that film caused a shark panic that directly led to their numbers in the wild to drastically dwindle. Taylor clearly has a lot of regret about what her work inadvertently did to the creatures she loves, but again, the film doesn’t probe quite as deep into the topic as I would’ve liked. We learn how her conservation efforts post- “Jaws” helped the shark population to reverse its dramatic downward plunge. Still, the facts of Taylor’s life do a lot of the heavy lifting rather than the documentary itself, which makes concrete points and raises questions about this time in her life. However, the footage of the behind the scenes process of “Jaws” is admittedly a worthwhile viewing for any cinephile and it goes to show just how effective Taylor’s work was, which, in a tragically ironic way, only made audiences more inordinately afraid of sharks.
The film’s most stunning moment is something of an emotional climax for its subject. In a daring effort to prove that they are harmless unless provoked, Taylor sets out to feed a great white shark by hand. We see the footage of her act and it’s genuinely tense and shocking, and Taylor in the present day is there to offer humorous commentary on the subject. It’s absolutely a moment worth seeing.
Valerie Taylor is a public figure even more fearsome than the intimidating creatures she has spent her life studying. Unfortunately, this documentary about her doesn’t do much but offer a cursory look into her fascinating life. If “Playing with Sharks” were an oceanic creature, it would be a surface-dweller that is undeniably beautiful but with little interest in diving deeper.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The film features plenty of captivating footage of Valerie Taylor swimming amongst sharks with abandon, effectively capturing the bravery and importance of this aquatic legend.
THE BAD – Its over-reliance on archival footage and lack of deep exploration into what we’re shown therein makes this documentary an unfortunately surface-level endeavor.