For many years, sharks—the creatures of water—were misunderstood by society. There is no doubt that cinema and television contributed to said fear of the water and “blood-wanting monsters.” Sharks, however, are not all that. There are many adventurers; people brave enough to explore these animals' natural environment and help us understand that the overwhelming fear we have is unnecessary. One of them is Valerie Taylor. In Playing with Sharks, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Sally Aitken showcases Taylor's remarkable life and ends this documentary with a touching finale.

Valerie Taylor, a remarkable scuba diver, started spearfishing in the ’60s. She was one of the few women who took part in this activity. One could always notice her. Taylor always wore a pink or a red suit; a color that was not accidental. It was to commemorate the legendary Jacques Cousteau and his ever-present red cap. She was a force of nature wherever she went. Even in the typically masculine field of work, Valerie quickly showed other divers that she was equal to them. Aitken ensures that we, as an audience, fully see Valerie’s adventurous life by presenting us the footage that has been collected over the decades of her and her husband’s journeys.

One of the most surprising things exhibited in Playing with Sharks is that Valerie and her husband, Ron, were assisting Spielberg in shooting Jaws, the most legendary film about a killer shark who threatens Amity Island. The filmmakers and the Taylors possessed a great hope for this film. The film was a success and, at the same time, a demise. Jaws' reception was negative in the sense that it multiplied people's fear of sharks. Some went even further and used the film as a permission to create contests to hunt and kill these animals. That's where Taylor stepped in and was continuously speaking out against killing sharks. She was adamant, brave, and always stood her ground. This extraordinary woman showed people that sharks are not beasts, but are beautiful animals who don't deserve to be hunted and killed.

The Taylors' work continued throughout their life. The director of Playing with Sharks captures their resilience, passion, and love for sharks. Like many other researchers, the couple fought for people to stop drowning the animals by cutting off their fins and throwing them back in the water. The issue of shark fins is touched by Aitkens and provokes further discussion as this controversial topic is an ongoing problem.

Valerie's dive is one of the most breathtaking moments in Playing with Sharks. In the moving underwater footage, the pioneer woman, the protector of aquatic creatures, once again has a chance to see them in all their glory. She can be spotted by the crew in her ever-present pink suit and a ribbon in her hair. Another great thing about this documentary is that the audience has a chance to see the footage from throughout Valerie and Ron's life. As we go from decade to decade, we can perceive the immense passion and dedication the couple shared and gave to others. We may think it's nothing, but this extraordinary woman truly contributed to the laws protecting sharks and their overall perception by ordinary people.

Sharks are one of the most magnificent and powerful creatures of ocean life. Their majestic beauty manifests in many of their species. People like Valerie Taylor uphold said beauty and showcase it to us everyday individuals to better understand them. Playing with Sharks is a must-watch for everybody. It’s a film that gives us an interesting insight into the life of one amazing woman who wasn't afraid of playing with sharks. 

Movie Score: 5/5


Visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Sundance interviews and reviews!

[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute and Ron & Valerie Taylor.]

  • Zofia Wijaszka
    About the Author - Zofia Wijaszka

    Zofia resides in LA and is passionate about pop culture, television, and Stevie Nicks. She graduated from the University of Wroclaw, Poland with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Social Communication with Creative Writing. She is a staff writer for First Showing and contributing writer for Awards Watch, Nerdist, Film Inquiry, and more.