Jaws. Deep Blue Sea. Finding Nemo. What do these three films have in common? They all feature sharks in antagonistic roles. While Jaws is credited for inventing the modern myth about the supposed sinister nature of sharks, it’s only fitting that the parent company behind the latter finally sets the record straight with the new documentary Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story.
The film, which had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and hits Disney+ this Friday, is produced by National Geographic. It’s a part of the society’s ninth annual SharkFest. Similar to Discovery’s widely known block of programming dubbed Shark Week, it’s another attempt at capturing the majestic nature of the titular apex predators despite their reputation. But what both Shark Week and SharkFest try to do over a long period of time Playing With Sharks achieves successfully in a brisk 95 minutes.
Written and directed by Emmy nominee Sally Aitken (David Stratton: A Cinematic Life), the film explores the life of famed scuba diver and filmmaker Valerie Taylor. While it sounds like your run-of-the-mill documentary, it’s actually far from it. From her early days as an underwater explorer to her eventual role as an activist in defense of the fearsome fish, the film takes you on a rare journey through time and sea…firsthand.
Where most documentaries rely heavily on a multitude of subjective interviews to tell their stories, Playing With Sharks uses interviews to reinforce what it can actually show us. Because of Taylor’s own history as a filmmaker, she provides years of archived footage. Beautifully remastered, it puts the audience right quite literally in her diving boots.
Even though changing the public’s perception of sharks is both Taylor and the film’s main mission, in addition to capturing the kindness of the misunderstood creatures, it delves into the aforementioned origin of the mass misconception about them too: Jaws.
Because of Taylor’s familiarity and expertise with the animals, she acted as both a consultant and assistant director on the set of the 1975 film. In a series of behind the scenes videos we actually witness Taylor and her late husband happily assisting with the shooting of several scenes. Those sequences specifically stand out because they demonstrate just how blissfully unaware everyone involved with the film was of how it would be received. The contrast becomes clearer when you see Taylor in subsequent interviews trying to convince the public of the film’s exaggeration.
Though the entire Jaws sequence feels like it could very well be its own project, it stands as one of the film’s most important parts because it proves how easily fear can be manufactured and reverberated over the course of generations.
Despite her efforts to undo the film’s message in those interviews, she’s only ever convinced the world of the innocence of sharks by swimming with them. As odd as it sounds, the moments where Taylor interacts with them effortlessly speak truth to power.
The film unfortunately and admittedly loses steam towards the end though, as it builds towards following Taylor’s planned attempt to swim amongst the sharks again in the present day. While it’s clearly an attempt to bring the film full circle, it serves no real purpose. Instead, I believe the film could have benefitted from some more exploration of what has become the “sharksploitation” genre aside from the emphasis of Jaws.
Granted, that the film’s main subject, but the mere acknowledgement of it and why it’s wrong doesn’t feel like enough here. As well all know, shark references didn’t end at Finding Nemo. In the last decade alone we’ve had a whole cable network dedicated to creating horror-centric shark films. Just last week a film titled Great White (and I don’t think I have to tell you what it was about).
Nevertheless, anyone who watches this film is bound to gain a deeper appreciation for the creatures often targeted for simply following their instincts. “Nature’s perfect creatures,” as Taylor calls them, are just like us. They don’t want to prey. They want to survive. And so it’s only fitting that she’s survived this long to help bring her own story to the surface and change the world’s view of them.