PLAYING WITH SHARKS: THE VALERIE TAYLOR STORY--DON'T DO THIS AT HOME.
Australian Valerie May Taylor stands on a small motor boat hanging onto a railing as she hand-feeds a bull shark. She enjoys doing the same with Great White sharks she's befriended over the years. No, Ms. Taylor isn't insane. In fact, the marine biologist is a pioneer shark researcher.
Released this week at the Provincetown Film Festival and selected theaters elsewhere, Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story (2021), chronicles her early days spear-fishing then transitioning to diving with sharks as she grew older. The documentary begins with dark music forewarning the dangers of the great predators, skimming over the many misnomers about these fish and then moving onto the fearless woman standing on her veranda of her home. Her centeredness, calm radiates from within; though now in her eighties, she stands tall.
A co-star with her husband, photographer, cinematographer Ron Taylor, in the 1979 film Blue Water, White Death, Taylor watched great whites first in a shark cage then later sans the protection. The movie catapulted the couple, thanks to theater runs then National Geographic and PBS, to cult status. Their aim, however, didn't revolve around fame, though she admits the money helped.
The film also helped begin to change people's minds about shark ferocity, buoyed by Peter Benchley's book, Jaws (Taylor points out that Benchley later regretted writing the novel), and the subsequent movie adaptation, which became a worldwide phenomenon after its opening in 1975. The Taylors contributed their expertise to the film unaware of what was to come.
Terrible repercussions of that blockbuster, massive slaughter, such as the extermination of gray nurse sharks off of Florida (though non-threatening to humans) and overfishing (e.g., for shark fin soup) are still felt today.
Archival, and new footage of Taylor on what may be her last dive, often dazzle. She belongs to the sea. The unafraid scientist likens her first experience with a great white approaching to "...a freight train coming out of the mist. Magnificent." We also hear from other colleagues about her accomplishments. They show due reverence, including Jean-Michel Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, among others. Taylor, though, remains front and center in this story.
Nowadays, she continues to work to conserve her namesake (along with late husband, Ron) marine park in Australia. And, she assists locals in Fiji to preserve the waters off of the islands, bringing in tourism and helping maintain a healthy bull shark population.
The movie's coda summarizes Valerie May Taylor's and the filmmaker's reverence for these and other native stewards of the land and the sea:
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we produced this film and pay our respect to the Elders, past, present and future and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander people. (Quotation from Playing with Sharks: The Valerie May Taylor Story)
Director Aiken manages to squeeze in considerable detail in Playing with Sharks about
Taylor, her late husband, their partnership diving in the ocean, and the marine biologists' courage to come eye-to-eye with the 350,000,000 years old apex predators.
Unrated but some scenes may be too frightening for young children and timid adults.
Now streaming via the Provincetown Film Festival. Tickets available at:
See my reviews of just released/shown Festival movies, with more to come, on this website.
MASKS ARE REQUIRED AT ALL INDOOR SCREENINGS FOR THE FESTIVAL.
Earlier reviews not seen on this website (before May 20, 2021) are available on https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/wendy-shreve/movies
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