Playing with Sharks by Sally Aitken
Playing with Sharks by Sally Aitken, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ron & Valerie Taylor.

The feature documentary Playing with Sharks, from two-time Emmy-nominated director Sally Aitken, documenting the life of Australian icon, conservationist and filmmaker Valerie Taylor was acquired by National Geographic Documentary Films at Sundance Film Festival

Playing with Sharks that world premiered at Sundance Film Festival captures the life of a woman ahead of her time – a true pioneer in both underwater filmmaking and shark research, whose life’s work has become the basis for much of what we know about sharks today. Through remarkable underwater archival footage, along with interviews with Valerie herself, the film follows this daring ocean explorer’s trajectory from champion spear fisher to passionate shark protector. From the birth of cage diving, to Jaws hysteria, to the dawn of cageless shark diving, Valerie became a trailblazing advocate for the ocean’s most maligned and misunderstood creatures.

As a young woman in Australia in the 1950s, Valerie Taylor bucked the status quo, becoming a champion spear fisher in a sport dominated by men. She soon traded in her spear for a camera, documenting the undersea world as never before. With husband Ron behind the camera and Valerie’s willingness to get up close and personal with creatures of the deep, the team quickly gained attention as world-class, pioneering underwater filmmakers. The first ever to film a great white underwater, their shark sequences ultimately became the inspiration for a new novel and soon-to-be blockbuster hit – Jaws – with Valerie and Ron brought on to shoot all the underwater live shark scenes.

The rest is history – Jaws went on to become a cultural phenomenon, smashing box office records and changing the film industry forever. But Jaws had other unforeseen consequences, solidifying sharks in the collective mindset as an underwater monster to be feared and hunted. Valerie would spend the rest of her life working to set the record straight, dispelling the fearsome misconceptions about the toothy predator and advocating for the protection and preservation of marine habitats such as the Great Barrier Reef.

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