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Movie Review: Playing With Sharks

Sharks Are Friends, Not Monsters: Valerie Taylor Will Convert You into a Shark Lover in Playing with Sharks

Film: Playing with Sharks

Director: Sally Aitken

Category: Feature – World Cinema Documentary

World-renowned shark documentarian Valerie Taylor will absolutely convert you from afraid of sharks to a shark conservationist in Playing with Sharks. How? Because she herself went from being a prize-winning spearfisher to filming the most famous shark footage that caused a shark fear frenzy to spending the rest of her life undoing that work to save sharks. Playing with Sharks follows Valerie Taylor’s life and career in filming the world’s most misunderstood underwater predator and her efforts to save their lives and homes.

Valerie’s story starts small. She grew up in Australia, and after surviving polio as a child, she decided to learn how to scuba dive, eventually leading her to become a competition-winning spearfisher. This is where she met her future husband, Ron Taylor, a fellow competitive spearfisher and an underwater marine photographer who built his own underwater cameras. Together, they became well-known marine documentarians, with Ron putting Valerie in front of the camera to give scale to the underwater creatures they filmed. Thanks to Valerie’s absolute fearlessness of even the biggest marine creatures, the two built a reputation as being some of the world’s only shark documentarians. As the Taylors continued to film sharks, their groundbreaking footage (and Valerie’s good looks in front of the camera), proved to be very popular, especially their work for the documentary Blue Water, White Death, about a shark searching expedition in South Africa and South Australia in 1971.

Blue Water, White Death led to Valerie and Ron’s most recognized work in their careers. The Taylors filmed the most famous piece of shark footage in the entire world, they captured the live shark footage for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975. The couple had developed the shark diving cage as a safe way to film the sharks underwater up close, which was exactly what Spielberg wanted for his movie. To make the shark look even bigger, they used a smaller boat and a small dive, and a half size cage, which the shark got caught in, giving us the now-famous footage of the shark thrashing about near the boat. Jaws was a smash hit, but it also struck fear into the hearts of millions more than their previous documentaries had ever reached.

As Valerie and Ron kept working with sharks all over Australia and the South Pacific, they realized how horrendous the impact of shark hunting was becoming. The two had long since given up spearfishing after filming sharks underwater, getting to know the animals, and realizing how little sharks wanted to do with people at all, much less hurting or hunting people. The shark killings increased significantly after Jaws was released as many cities and countries would hunt and kill sharks near their beaches under the false pretense that the sharks were harmful. The shark fin trade increased as well to feed the Chinese medicinal market’s demand for the fins. The film shows the massive harm and loss of sharks over the years following Jaws, and it is truly heartbreaking. The loss of sharks over the decades of hunting and culling around beaches numbers into the millions of animals unnecessarily slaughtered.

Ron and Valerie then shifted their careers once more, not only having given up spearfishing but now also giving up filming shark footage for the sake of scary entertainment. The two dedicated their lives to shark conservation to make up for the damage they had unintentionally caused with Jaws and their previous documentaries that demonized the very creatures they loved so much. This conservation work includes their revelatory footage of Valerie, wearing shark-proof diving chainmail, literally having to bait a shark with a dead fish to get the shark to bite her arm, proving that sharks don’t really have any interest in humans and that their bites are not that powerful. Valerie has now spent decades working with the Australian government to get sharks listed as protected species, conserving their underwater homes with protected areas like the Ron and Valerie Taylor Marine Park in the Neptune Islands off the coast of South Australia, and even reintroducing sharks to dead coral reefs to help revitalize the marine life and save marine habitats.

This documentary is such a fun watch. Valerie was able to provide the filmmakers with years’ worth of footage from all of the dives and expeditions she and Ron had gone on throughout their careers. Valerie herself, now 85 years old, still shines as bright as she did in all of the original footage. She still has an absolute spark and love for sharks and their conservation, which you can see on her last dive in the film swimming with bull sharks in Fiji (I mean, what 85 year old do you know who goes swimming with sharks?!). Playing with Sharks is a must-watch for any ocean lovers and Shark Week fans, you’ll get to see more up-close footage with sharks than you’ve ever seen before and you’ll fall in love with Valerie and the sharks, too.

Review Score: 5/5

Where Can You Watch: National Geographic Documentary Films purchased the rights to Playing With Sharks, so keep an eye out for your chance to watch the film on one of National Geographic’s outlets.

Bonus content: Check out the Q&A with director Sally Aitken and the star herself, Valerie Taylor, on the Sundance Youtube channel. Watch here (link: https://youtu.be/3G4MTjBFxhA)

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