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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Valerie Taylor: Playing with Sharks

This powerful documentary explores the life and underwater exploits of an Australian diving, oceanography and marine conservation icon.
By Sarah Ward
June 17, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
June 17, 2021
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Ever wondered if it was safe to go back into the water? You have Jaws to thank. When the killer shark flick swam into cinemas in 1975, it didn't just become Hollywood's first blockbuster — it also sparked phobias that have lingered for generations. Almost everyone has seen the eerily effective creature feature. Too many movies since have wanted to be it, too. Even if you somehow haven't watched the famed horror film, you still know of it, and you likely get creeped out whenever you heard just a few notes from its oft-deployed score. But if it weren't for Australian spearfisher and diver-turned-oceanographer and filmmaker Valerie Taylor and her husband Ron, Jaws may not have become the popular culture behemoth it is. It mightn't have had beachgoers thinking twice about taking a dip in the sea for the past 46 years, either, or had the same bite — or success — overall.

Steven Spielberg directed Jaws, but the Taylors shot its underwater shark sequences — off the coast of Port Lincoln in South Australia, in fact. And, when one of the animals they were filming lashed out at a metal cage that had held a stuntman mere moments before, the pair captured one of the picture's most nerve-rattling scenes by accident. As everyone who has seen the huge hit has witnessed, Jaws benefits significantly from the Taylors' efforts. Indeed, before Peter Benchley's novel of the same name was even published, the duo was sent a copy of the book and asked if it would make a good feature (the answer: yes). Helping to make Jaws the phenomenon it is ranks among Valerie's many achievements, alongside surviving polio as a child, her scuba and spearfishing prowess, breaking boundaries by excelling in male-dominated fields in 60s, and the conservation activism that has drawn much of her focus in her later years. Linked to the latter, and also a feat that many can't manage: her willingness to confront her missteps and then do better.

The apprehension that many folks feel when they're about to splash in the ocean? The deep-seated fear and even hatred of sharks, too? That's what Valerie regrets. Thanks to Jaws, being afraid of sharks is as natural to most people as breathing, and Valerie has spent decades wishing otherwise. That's the tale that Valerie Taylor: Playing with Sharks tells as it steps through her life and career. Taking a standard birth-to-now approach, the documentary has ample time for many of the aforementioned highlights, with Valerie herself either offering her memories via narration or popping up to talk viewers through her exploits. But two things linger above all else in this entertaining, engaging and insightful doco: the stunning archival footage, with Ron Taylor credited first among the feature's five cinematographers; and the work that Valerie has spearheaded to try to redress the world's fright-driven perception of sharks.

The remarkable remastered clips shot by Ron make for astonishing and affecting viewing. Seeing the Taylors switch from chasing sharks to playing with and saving them does as well. Filmmaker Sally Aitken understands this and, helming her second big-screen documentary about an Aussie icon in the past four years — following 2017's David Stratton: A Cinematic Life — builds the bulk of her film around these decades-old materials. That choice also helps underscore Valerie and Ron's change of heart. Both were successful spearfishers, but Valerie is candid about the impact that killing a nurse shark in her line of work had. Helping to make 1971 documentary Blue Water White Death and then Jaws, the pair became committed to shooting with cameras rather than spears. Watching their footage, it's easy to see why. Valerie was known for her fearlessness (Ron even nicknamed her "give-it-a-go Valerie"), and her willingness to get up close and personal with the types of underwater critters most of us have nightmares about results in breathtaking imagery. Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques, is one of Playing with Sharks' other talking heads  — and his dad wasn't envious of the Taylors' work, he should've been.

All that footage should turn David Attenborough green-eyed as well; it brings him to mind more than once, actually. Playing with Sharks keeps its focus on Valerie — she isn't presented as a supporting player to her late husband, or appreciated here solely because she was once one of the rare woman working in her chosen fields — but the film's archival visuals also spark the kind of wonder and awe that's synonymous with Attenborough's documentaries. Some of the coral reefs dived by the Taylors no longer exist, but audiences can see them here. As images of her underwater frolics with sharks and other marine life fill the screen, Valerie speaks of the sheer abundance of critters she waded among, and the misguided 60s-era perception that that'd never change. The footage shot by the Taylors acts as a time capsule, harking back to a very recent stage in the earth's history that'll likely never be repeated. Even if it wasn't combined with Valerie's life story and reflections, these clips would still prove inspiring, especially when it comes to rethinking prevailing opinions about sharks — including great whites — and fighting for their conservation.

Shark haters, consider this a warning: Playing with Sharks will have you reassessing your opinion. Any movie could've laid out the facts regarding shark behaviour, unpacked the hysteria or chronicled Valerie's impact, but her enthusiasm and passion are infectious here — including when the now 85-year-old pops a red ribbon in her hair again, slips her aching shoulder into her pink wetsuit, goes for a dive in Fiji and beams about how a shark just hit her. This isn't just a biographical doco about someone known for working with sharks; like last year's David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, 2017's Jane Goodall documentary Jane and underwhelming 2021 Oscar-winner My Octopus Teacher, it's a movie about being profoundly changed by the natural world and all of its splendour. Aitken doesn't take any risks with her format, and noticeably so — but given Valerie's powerful story, she doesn't need to.

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