Around the same time that Emmy-nominated writer-director Sally Aitken’s latest film was debuting in the World Documentary section at Sundance, the New York Times ran a piece on the alarming decline in the worldwide shark population, citing a 70% reduction since the 1970s. It’s a statistic — possibly conservative given the underreporting from some parts of the globe — that will be only too well known to the documentary’s subject, Valerie Taylor, the iconic Australian marine conservationist who has dedicated her life to the species’ preservation. This life is accessibly and straightforwardly celebrated in “Playing With Sharks”: As Dian Fossey was to gorillas and Jane Goodall is to chimps, so is Valerie Taylor to this 450-million-year-old class of carnivorous, cartilaginous fish.
In amongst surprisingly comprehensive archive footage of her youth as a world-class diver and spear-fisher, Taylor recounts her story in interview segments shot in her oceanside home. Though perhaps the wealth of old film is not so surprising: Now in her mid-80s, Taylor is still a striking-looking woman, with eyes an appropriately oceanic, sparkling deep blue, but as a young woman she was, not to put too fine a point on it, a knockout. A lissome blonde, her hair tied back in a talismanic red ribbon, Taylor stood out in the macho, male-dominated 1950s/’60s world of competitive diving, first on her own and then as one half of the scene’s most golden couple.
A lot of that gorgeous early underwater footage of Taylor gliding alongside shoals of glimmering fish in between reefs in a bikini and snorkel was shot by Ron Taylor, the then-World Spear-Fishing Champion to whom Valerie would be married for nearly 50 years, until his death in 2012. But if the tone of the film is uniformly admiring, Taylor is often critical of the younger woman who appears in these frames, frankly expressing regrets and self-recrimination about those less enlightened days when sub-aquatic hunting was her bread and butter. “I only ever killed one shark,” she says. “I wish I hadn’t. But there was so much life in the ocean then, you thought you couldn’t make a dent.”
There may not have been one Damascene conversion moment, but certainly by the time of Ron’s 1965 expedition to film the Great White in the wild (Valerie didn’t go because the captain didn’t want a woman aboard) resulted in the slaughter of five sharks, both she and her husband decided they were done with killing fish. They put away their spears and picked up their cameras, which led directly to their new careers as filmmakers and underwater movie consultants. This, of course, brought them to the attention of Steven Spielberg, for whose unheralded little upcoming B-movie “Jaws” the pair filmed much of the real-world shark footage.
This part of “Playing With Sharks” is particularly interesting to film fans, not least because of Taylor’s honest appraisal of the movie’s negative-PR effect on the very animals she so loves, her guilt at her participation only a little tempered by the fact they could not have known the impact the world’s first blockbuster would have. A lot of her formidable subsequent energies — and those of other interview subjects like conservationist Wendy Benchley, wife of “Jaws” writer Peter Benchley; famous underwater photographer Stan Waterman; and Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques — would be poured into counteracting the mass-hysteria over the Great White that “Jaws” was so instrumental in fomenting. That shark, she insists, was an invented monster whose behavior, and indeed size, bears very little relation to the real creatures. She is disparaging about those who refused to believe it was, in fact, safe to go back in the water: “You don’t walk around New York worrying about King Kong.”
Acquired by National Geographic Films, “Playing With Sharks” slots neatly and uncontroversially into the widening niche for environmentalist documentaries, and in its accessible, friendly construction, will flourish on the small screen despite the grandeur of much of its classic footage. But more specifically, it sits alongside recent doc hits like “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” and Oscar nominee “My Octopus Teacher” in being not just about endangered ecosystems, but the deeply rewarding interactions that human beings can have with them over time.
When Taylor goes on her most recent dive, there’s a poignant moment when, having tied her signature red ribbon in her hair, she struggles into her pink wetsuit with difficulty due to an old shoulder injury. But then, when she’s underwater, caressing her adored animals, excited and weightless, she could be any age. “Did you see?” she asks her companion when they resurface. “One of them hit me!” She sounds delighted.