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Sundance 2021 ‘Playing With Sharks’ Review: Playful, Brazen, and Revolutionary

Armed with only a body suit of chainmail and her sheer, inimitable confidence in the behavioral character of sharks, Valerie Taylor literally turned herself into bait. She beckoned sharks to sink their teeth in and when they could not make a mark or tear into her flesh, she proved several things to the entire world. One, that she is and was one of the ballsiest women on the planet. Two, that sharks used their teeth in a very particular way, drawing their strength from movement rather than jaw strength. 

Playing With Sharks as directed by Sally Aitken is an epic recounting of Taylor as a scientist, artist, conservationist, and shark aficionado. From competitive spear-fishing to marine biology to shooting footage for Jaws, her career is one of boldness and great bravery. Her love for the alien, largely unexplored world that is the sea began when she was young and the female champion of spear-fishing. That was her introduction to diving and it molded her sharpness, her lethality. She soon went from hunter to conservationist, a path that was evidently quite common at the time because hunters were the primary people who were physically and viscerally experiencing natural environments. There was a collective attitude that one could take what they wanted from the ocean because there was such an abundance of it, but upon seeing dead sharks piled up on boat decks, each of them killed violently and for no real reason, Taylor had a strong feeling that something was wrong. 

Such questions of morality are pondered frequently throughout the film as Taylor dissects her life. Most significantly, she deconstructs her participation in the film Jaws and the hand it had in undoing her conservation work by portraying sharks as vicious man-eaters. The public reaction to the film involved a significant amount of fear, which translated into the glorification of shark-hunting. The popularity of killing expeditions rose and she found herself desperately trying to convince people that sharks were not in fact murderous nor as dangerous as the fantastical film presented them to be. This led to a great deal of working to protect sharks, particularly great whites, through legislature. 

This documentary is shot and pieced together with what seems like effortless skill and true appreciation for Taylor and her work. There is some seriously breathtaking found footage throughout, much of it taken by her husband Ron Taylor as well as by friends, colleagues, and Taylor herself. All of it is very much a testament to her role at the forefront of underwater filmmaking and photography. 

Taylor swims through life in neon pink wetsuits with bright ribbons of every color tied in her hair. Her fearless and lovely personality is infectious, as is the joyful affection with which she regards sharks. She literally hand-feeds an especially friendly great white, giving it plenty of pats on the nose and head along the way. Playing With Sharks does a delightful job of capturing her energy and effervescence. It is visually gorgeous, spirited, and just plain old wonderful for the soul. Valerie Taylor has such strength of character and this journey through her life and career is sincerely thrilling. 

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Jenna Kalishman

Jenna Kalishman is a writer and student at Colorado College pursuing English and film studies. She especially loves morally questionable female characters, Stevie Nicks, sapphic yearning, and Rachel Weisz's energy in The Favourite.

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