'Playing With Sharks': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Playing with Sharks
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
This time it's personal.

A visually stunning documentary tribute to Australian marine conservationist Valerie Taylor, whose fearless underwater photography, made famous in 'Jaws,' expanded human understanding of the ocean's apex predators.

There's a key contrast early on that distills the fascination of Playing With Sharks, Sally Aitken's enthralling documentary about underwater adventurer Valerie Taylor. Richard Dreyfuss, in a line from Jaws, is heard saying, "What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine." Then a plummy British voice that appears to be a young David Attenborough chimes in: "Monsters like these came to dominate the sea some 350 million years ago." Cut to the octogenarian Taylor, cheerfully packing her pink wetsuit for a trip to Fiji to dive in waters teeming with bull sharks that would send most swimmers scrambling for the shore in terror.

Taylor and her late husband Ron, who died in 2012, are legendary Australian shark experts who segued from their early days as spearfishing champions to become in-demand underwater cinematographers. Their shark sequences, both with and without the protection of cages, have been central to the effectiveness of Jaws and a string of other Hollywood movies. Valerie Taylor, a delightfully down to earth subject without a hint of self-glorification about her considerable achievements, describes the first time she saw a great white swimming toward her in the depths as "like a freight train coming out of the mist." She was hooked.

In addition to the disarming personality of her subject, seasoned Australian TV director Aitken's invigorating dive into the deep is distinguished by the sheer beauty of its archival material. Immaculately remastered footage spanning a half-century captures the alien landscape of the underwater world, going back to a time before coral reefs were ravaged by climate change and overfishing had reduced many marine species to a fraction of their former populations.

Terrific clips from the 1950s describe the very male culture of spearfishing at the time Taylor began making a name for herself in national contests. The patronizing tone of commentators seemingly more attentive to her slender figure and long blond hair (tied back in a signature red ribbon while diving) than her underwater skills speaks volumes. But the more notable time warp is the prevailing attitude that the ocean was a bottomless resource, with so much life in it that fishermen could take what they wanted without ever making a difference. Black and white beach footage of lifeguards ringing shark alarm bells to clear swimmers out of the water — a familiar experience to many coastal Australians growing up — illustrates the thinking back then that the only good shark was a dead shark.

Having struggled for nine weeks to walk again after being struck with polio at age 12, Taylor was a natural in the water from her teens, her body perhaps responding instinctually to the freedom of movement.

The doc recaps her first encounters with Ron at spearfishing club meets, and a courtship that included him buying her a yellow one-piece to replace her home-made bikini. They married in 1963. The fish they speared while diving often attracted sharks, meaning they were effectively dragging bait. But even the near-death encounter with a great white of the Taylors' colleague Rodney Fox in 1965 didn't scare them off. Footage from the attack shows Fox's patchwork of 485 chest stitches and 94 in his hand, with all but one tendon broken; he later colorfully describes the species as "submarines with teeth."

Taylor recalls already feeling conflicted the first and only time she killed a shark, which is documented in a TV clip whose narrator marvels at the unprecedented feat for a "lady skindiver." She was excluded from the first trip to photograph great whites due to the men-only policy of the captain, but Ron was hired, and astonishing film of him scooping bait off the boat almost directly into the mouths of massive sharks suggests the inspiration for a famous scene in Jaws. But witnessing the big-game fishermen on board littering the boat's deck with the carcasses of great whites up to 14 feet long put the experience in a different light.

The Taylors instantly swore off killing marine life, exchanging their spears for cameras. The gorgeous 1960s color footage includes some of the doc's most spectacular imagery, with Valerie getting friendly with jellyfish, giant stingrays, seals, octopuses, sea snakes and a pair of mean-looking moray eels. Her willingness to stroke or even pick up and play with creatures considered dangerous was a plus for TV companies looking for underwater footage with drama. "I wouldn't say I was a Bond girl," says Taylor, though magazines played up the combination of glamor and high-risk adventure, as do visuals like a shot of her getting smacked in the face by the tail of a shark.

Along with fellow pioneers in the field like Stan Waterman in the U.S. and Jacques Cousteau in France, the Taylors were among a small handful of skilled underwater photographers in the '60s. What makes the footage of Valerie unique is her composure around sharks as her understanding of them grew. While hand-feeding them in the Coral Sea, she discovered they could learn certain behaviors, much like a dog. Determined to get the perfect photo opportunity with the shark framed by a splendid reef formation and the sun through the water's surface above, she is seen giving it a tap on the snout and rewarding it with a piece of fish only when it swims in the desired direction.

The shoot of the hit 1969 documentary feature Blue Water, White Death, made with American director Peter Gimbel, was the first time the Taylors had left the submerged cage. They were filming oceanic whitetips drawn by the catch of a whaling fleet. "Now we die," Valerie recalls thinking at the time. "Never for a second did I think of not going." By hitting back hard when the creatures gave them an exploratory bump before biting, they established their place in the pack feeding on a harpooned whale.

Their work on that film brought the Taylors to the attention of diving enthusiast Peter Benchley, who had an idea for a novel. Universal sent the Taylors the galleys of that book, asking about its viability as a dramatic feature project. That sealed their first big Hollywood deal.

For fans of Jaws, this will be the meatiest part of Aitken's fast-moving doc, which benefits from composer Caitlyn Yeo's unusually dynamic scoring for a nonfiction feature. Steven Spielberg's decision to shoot the live shark sequences first influenced several of the more exciting story beats. One amusing insight is that the director's whim to switch from a 16-foot shark to a 25-footer necessitated shooting scenes with a half-size cage and a terrified half-size man, who had zero diving experience. Incredible footage of a huge shark thrashing around with its head jammed in the cage makes it obvious why a similar scene was incorporated into the script.

The Taylors were as surprised as anyone when what they thought was going to be a standard B-picture turned into a mold-breaking blockbuster. But the movie's success was also a double-edged sword, prompting phantom shark sightings at beaches and sparking a surge in thrill-seeking fishermen going out on shark hunts. Valerie talks about her and Ron's amazement, but also that of Benchley, Universal and the producers, that the public was buying the fictitious story as fact. "You don't walk around New York worrying about King Kong," she says.

The damage-control interviews the couple gave on a U.S. tour financed by Universal had limited success once the monster had been created; it was hard to shift people's idea of sharks as marauding killers from the deep. That experience fueled Taylor's dedication to ocean conservation, which began with specific endangered species and extended to marine parks. One of the most stirring clips shows rescuers freeing a great white struggling for its life while tangled in a wire. And footage of the endangered blue shark population being decimated for shark fin soup is distressing, with Taylor likening the practice to killing elephants for their tusks.

The very personal nature of Taylor’s involvement with these magnificent creatures makes this quite an affecting account of their threatened survival. "They have been around for millions of years," she says. "That's not a mistake." She landed on the cover of National Geographic in 1981 in an experiment involving a chainmail diving suit with bait attached, which disproved scientific misconceptions about the crush power of a shark's jaw.

The doc is somewhat coy about the fact that the Taylors continued shooting shark footage for Hollywood movies, notably Jaws 2 and Orca, even after the regrettable impact of Spielberg's film. Valerie acknowledges that they needed to make a living, though it would perhaps have been illuminating for her to expand on that conflict with greater self-reflection.

Still, there's no questioning her commitment to the protection of sharks and other marine species, and the title of Aitken's doc seems quite literal when you see Taylor stroking the snout of a great white twice her size while hand-feeding it off a rickety metal duckboard on the back of a boat. There's a lovely poetry in editor Adrian Rostirolla's intercutting of footage of the young Taylor diving with the present-day veteran, wincing as she squeezes her aching shoulders into a wetsuit before taking the plunge into a world that keeps her ageless.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Wildbear Entertainment, Dogwoof, TDog
Director-screenwriter: Sally Aitken
Producer: Bettina Dalton
Executive producers: Alan Erson, Anna Godas, Oli Harbottle, Paul Wiegard
Directors of photography: Ron Taylor, Michael Latham, Judd Overton, Nathan Barlow, Toby Ralph, Jonathan Heighes
Music: Caitlyn Yeo
Editor: Adrian Rostirolla
Sales: Dogwoof
90 minutes