In January 1992, Valerie and Ron Taylor achieved an incredible premiere filming great white sharks without a safety cage or other protection. Together with two other divers, they swam among great white sharks off Dyer Island, South Africa.
A living legend and icon in the diving world, Valerie Taylor is a vibrant, enthusiastic woman in her eighties who shares some of these memories Play with sharks a documentary about her life, directed by Sally Aitken, which premiered at this year’s online Sundance Film Festival.
It spans almost 70 years of Taylor’s career and shows her time as a shark hunter in the 1950s and early 1960s, and later as a world-famous underwater photographer and explorer, and above all as a passionate marine conservationist.
The first part of the film focuses on her fearless passion for the ocean and her fascination with sharks, one of her most mysterious creatures. After recovering from polio in 1948, Taylor became addicted the first time she saw “underwater,” as she describes it in the film.
The story of this adventurous life is told through extensive archival material recorded over 50 years, recent interviews with her and contributions from insiders of oceanography such as the explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques), the marine biologist Jeremiah Sullivan, the filmmaker and former Marlin master Rodney Fox and journalist Douglas Seifert. They provide commentary throughout the film on Taylor’s efforts to raise awareness of the importance of marine conservation through film and photography, and how they were received.
Change of heart
But there is a significant narrative shift when we hear Valerie Taylor and husband Ron experience their own revelation. The couple were seasoned master spearfishing, in love with the sea, and led by a strong competitive spirit. But after killing five sharks one day while spearfishing, the sight of the carcasses made them both sad – and Ron realized that killing fish had become an obsession. From that moment on, he decided to only record her with his camera.
For the couple, that event marked the beginning of a long, intense journey that resulted in them making countless documentaries and later swimming tailless in a school of oceanic white tip sharks in Peter Gimbel’s 1971 film Blue water, white death.
It is remarkable to watch how their fear of the predators was gradually replaced by curiosity, mutual respect and admiration. “We were ultimately accepted as other marine animals,” says Taylor, while the archive footage shows her wearing a chain mail suit and swimming a few inches from her new companions.
The release of Gimbel’s documentary caught the eye of a young Steven Spielberg, who hired the Taylors to film the Great White Sharks sequences for his 1975 thriller jaw. Aitken doesn’t hesitate to delve into the audience’s emotional reaction to the cult film, which at the time provoked many ruthless shark-killing attempts and, overall, heightened public fear of sharks.
The director depicts the couple’s repeated attempts to make amends and explain how they are working on it jaw apparently contributed to the creation of a work of pure fiction. Valerie Taylor’s dismay at accidentally damaging sharks’ reputations is evident on-screen, and this sequence is perhaps the most painful of the film (along with the one where we learn of Ron’s death in 2012).
After this jawThe two spent the rest of their lives together celebrating sharks, working as underwater photographers, and often creating the covers of prestigious publications, including National Geographic Magazine for the 1992 first.
The rewarding final sequence in Fiji – no spoilers here – shows how the love of knowledge knows no boundaries or age limits. Taylor’s life-affirming journey becomes an effective narrative tool to tell the scientific story of how, in our view, sharks have changed forever, from sea monsters to extraordinary, complex animals to love and preserve. Enriched by a powerful score by Caitlin Yeo, which was flawlessly arranged by Adrian Rostirolla. Play with sharks is a must for all sea lovers and documentary filmmakers.