[Sundance Review] Captivating Doc ‘Playing with Sharks’ Chronicles Australian Icon and ‘Jaws’ Impact

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Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, a seminal horror classic, notoriously made people afraid to go into the water. The blockbuster’s live shark sequences were filmed by legendary marine pioneer Valerie Taylor and her husband, Ron. Their role in the film led to regret once the blockbuster inspired a wave of shark slaughter. It sparked an enduring dedication by the Taylors toward oceanic and shark conservation efforts. Filmmaker Sally Aitken‘s stunning and captivating documentary chronicles Valerie Taylor‘s fearless relationship with the ocean since childhood, detailing a remarkable life devoted to the sea’s most terrifying predator.

Playing with Sharks is breathtaking, and much of the credit belongs to Valerie and Ron Taylor. As an underwater photographer, Ron’s career meant impressive cataloging of their lives, from the pair’s early start as champion spearfishers in Australia to eventual marine documentarists. Remastered and impressively edited together, Aitken assembles a slew of prominent talking heads to offer critical insights into Valerie’s trailblazing history. At the center of it all, of course, is Valerie herself to share candid stories and memories. Her disarming personality is instantly winsome.

Valerie’s fearlessness of the sea is evident from the start; there’s at least one montage of the diver swimming up to various sea snakes, eels, and more and handling them without hesitation. The sole exception to that bravado, she confesses, was sharks. Starting with early footage from the late ’50s, Aitkens presents a clear picture of Valerie’s slow discovery of shark behavior, intelligence, and even personalities. That progression comes with many early regrets for the Taylors, including many kills of the apex predators. Those who prefer to avoid seeing actual animal violence on screen should be warned; this doc shows multiple shark deaths, first from Valerie’s spearfishing days and more from big game fishing expeditions. There’s also a gruesome photo of a shark attack on survivor and family friend Rodney Fox. Valerie isn’t proud of her former ignorance, and the imagery sells the weight of those acts.

The decades’ journey leads to the Taylors’ involvement with Jaws, giving background context to the iconic footage that sees a great white shark mauling the diving cage that supposedly contained actor Richard Dreyfus just moments before. Expect other amusing anecdotes about the film’s creation behind the scenes, too. Enough time and attention are given to the film that irrevocably changed the Taylors’ lives, but it’s still just a footnote in the decades’ long journey. For fans of Jaws, however, this will likely be the juiciest portion of the feature.

Aitken’s documentary is a technical marvel that holds you in its grip from beginning to end, but that’s because of Valerie Taylor’s winsome personality and the gorgeous footage the Taylors contributed that makes it so visually engaging. Without the latter, Playing with Sharks offers a standard, superficial catalog of an Australian icon whose contributions to marine conservationism, diving, and sharks over multiple decades are too vast to cover with the depth they’re owed. There’s no way a 90-minute feature could cover all ground, but the zippy pacing means that it sweeps too quickly over some of the more poignant moments of Valerie’s life.

Because of that remastered footage, Playing with Sharks offers a remarkable look at Valerie’s youth to her present, where she still pulls on wet suits and cracks jokes about diving well past the day that she loses functional health on land. It’s a fantastic introduction to an absolute marvel.

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