'Playing with Sharks' Makes it a Joy to Go Back in the Water

From the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, we review the biographical documentary about legendary diver and shark expert Valerie Taylor.

Playing with Sharks
Sundance Institute

If you’ve never heard of Valerie Taylor, you’ll be surprised by her relative obscurity, or at least your own unfamiliarity, while watching Playing with Sharks. Taylor has long been one of the most important divers in the world, along with her late husband, Ron, and she’s been partly responsible for both negative and positive views on sharks over the last half-century. As we surmise from the documentary, she’d definitely rather be only known for the latter perspective.

Taylor began her diving career as a champion spearfisher but gave that up after killing her first shark. Then with Ron, she became focused on photographing and filming sharks, which she discovered were mostly harmless and actually fairly easy to train. But as an expert on Great Whites, she participated in gathering the underwater footage of a real shark for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. She expected it to be a B-movie that few people would see. Of course, it was instead a gigantic blockbuster, and unfortunately, it made people fear sharks, especially Great Whites, more than ever. And that led to their being hunted more than ever, to the point of endangerment.

Taylor attempted to change minds, even embarking on a talk show tour courtesy of Jaws‘ studio, Universal Pictures (yet she did return for Jaws 2 as well as the knockoff Orca). But she’s mostly been active in the conservation game because that’s had greater results. Playing with Sharks chronicles her story objectively, albeit with Taylor’s own frank narration coming through by way of an interview conducted for the film. Simply and naturally, it’s a portrait of a personal progression, as Taylor’s career and character developed in ways that changed the course of her and Ron’s understanding, process, and purpose. She has regrets, but in the end, she’s entering the twilight of her life having directly done more good than harm.

She reminds me of Jane Goodall, who has been the subject and star of many documentaries and is more of a household name. Perhaps it’s because Goodall’s attention is on chimpanzees and Taylor’s has been on a less-cute and often villainized animal that one of them is more famous than the other. When you compare the biographical trajectories of Playing with Sharks and Brett Morgen’s 2017 Goodall feature, Jane (which inspired producer Bettina Dalton to make Playing with Sharks), they’re similar in their narrative. They both compile archival footage that presents an attractive woman undertaking adventurous wildlife study, with a man whom she marries, and ultimately becoming the foremost authority and activist in her field.

Because of the way Taylor inadvertently adds to the prejudice against sharks and their acceptance as deadly monsters, the film also reminded of Feels Good Man, the 2020 documentary about a cartoonist whose innocent creation grievously became an alt-right symbol. But Playing with Sharks does a great job of showing Taylor’s true intent and achievement in her work on Jaws. Hopefully, fans of Spielberg’s movie will be drawn to the documentary in the interest of seeing more of how it was made and then will leave with a better appreciation for and lack of dread about real Great Whites. They’ll realize how much the movie exaggerated and singularized just one unlikely example for the sake of entertainment.

What I love about Playing with Sharks, though, is that it’s not all about saving the sharks. It’s not a conservation issue film. It’s a film about a woman whose life’s mission is saving the sharks and showing the world why they’re worth protecting and that they are misunderstood creatures not to be slaughtered in some kind of preemptive self-defense for all of mankind. The documentary does surely communicate the issue through its biography, but it’s not driven by the issue itself. That might mean that some viewers will still be scared of sharks, even if more fascinated by them, in the end, but that won’t be the fault of the film or Taylor.

Among those inspired by the film to give money to the cause of shark conservation, if not towards their own chainmail diving suit and swimming with sharks adventure, fans of Playing with Sharks will probably be even more inspired to seek out the Taylors’ old movies. You’ll want to watch more footage of both Valerie and her subject matter, including other sea life besides sharks. As far as I understand, much of the footage seen in this new documentary is from the Taylors’ archives and possibly not recycled from their films. All the more reason why it’d be nice to have those old works, including the surprisingly unavailable hit 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death. They ought to be reissued in tandem with the release of Playing with Sharks.


(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.