SUNDANCE 2021: ‘Playing With Sharks’

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Playing With Sharks

The Sundance Film Festival takes courage and artistry in film to the max with its showcase of international documentary features. Documentary films have the special power of harnessing the beauty of our world to capture the imagination. When it comes to stories of courage and exploring our fantastical world, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better film than Playing With Sharks.

From acclaimed filmmaker, Sally Aitken, Playing With Sharks brings sharks into an intimate focus through its exploration of the life of diver and conservationist Valerie Taylor. The documentary is just as much a retelling of Taylor’s extraordinary life as it is a statement on mankind’s relationship with nature and culture’s evolving perspective on sharks. Pop culture lovers will especially appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at Valerie Taylor’s role in the making of the film JAWS, which offers a point of view on the impact of film in our society not often discussed.

The shark is a force within our popular consciousness. They’re an enduring symbol of danger in the deep, a relic of primitive monsters, and a source of fear and fascination to all. Perhaps more so than any other animal, the shark has been a victim of bad PR and our perception of them is almost fully formed by overwrought pop culture references. It would be impossible to find a better ambassador for the shark than the infectiously charming Valerie Taylor.

As a documentary subject, Valerie is ideal. She’s a blonde bombshell (both in the older footage of her youth, and at aged-to-perfection 80) with a beguiling smile, an inner fire that you can see a mile away, and a composed mindfulness that adds weight to her words. Playing With Sharks introduces us to Valerie as a fearless young woman that overcame any obstacle through sheer will and a desire to get back in the water. Viewers are treated to a full tour of how she became a commanding force in her space, along with her husband, and used her unique understanding and intimacy with sharks to educate and raise awareness.

Playing With Sharks

A highlight of the film is the section in which Valerie Taylor details her experiences working in the film industry. Starting with Blue Water, White Death, and leading up to JAWS, Valerie Taylor details every moment of guiding filmmakers to the perfect locations and fearlessly pursuing the perfect shot. Her perspective on making these films comes from a deep respect and comfort with sharks. What’s most fascinating is hearing her describe dangerous and high-stakes events with calm and almost a resignation to the ocean. If you take nothing else away from Playing With Sharks, let it be the knowledge that no one more confidently occupies their place in the world than Valerie Taylor.

Beautifully interwoven in the exciting tales from Valerie Taylor’s life is an overwhelming message of the ability to see beyond the self. When Valerie speaks about her encounters with sharks, she speaks from a place of respect but also from a place of shared existence. It’s not a story of monsters and prey or man versus nature. To hear Valerie describe her dives, she finds herself on equal footing with the shark. The viewer can immediately appreciate the profound depth of her relationship with the animals, and it makes the misconceptions and fear that are preprogrammed into our pop culture melt away.

Playing With Sharks beautifully combines breathtaking nature shots with exciting restored footage of Valerie Taylor’s exploits. Truly, the documentary is just as much a history of film as it is a story of a life. Seeing sharks filmed in such a variety of ways serves to breakdown the preconceived notions planted there by Hollywood.

Playing With Sharks is a love letter, a plea, and an epic all rolled into one. Valerie Taylor is as compelling as any classic hero and able to reach straight for the heartstrings with the help of such incredible cinematography. The film perfectly captures its stars with all the beauty, grace, and power befitting Valerie Taylor and the sharks that she adores.

Playing With Sharks premieres at 7pm (Mountain Time) on January 29, 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival.


Playing With Sharks
  • 6/10
    Rating - 6/10
6/10

TL;DR

Playing With Sharks is a love letter, a plea, and an epic all rolled into one. Valerie Taylor is as compelling as any classic hero and able to reach straight for the heartstrings with the help of such incredible cinematography. The film perfectly captures its stars with all the beauty, grace, and power befitting Valerie Taylor and the sharks that she adores.