Sundance 2021: Playing with Sharks

A still from 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.

Right when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Sally Aitken gives fans a documentary of Valerie Taylor in Playing with Sharks.

Listen up, Jaws fans.  This film should certainly capture your attention.  I know you watch Jaws every summer because I do the same thing, too.  After all, the Steven Spielberg film is a cinematic classic.  What Playing with Sharks does is take viewers where the Jaws bonus features (sorry, Laurent Bouzereau) do not.  While this film is a profile of Valerie Taylor, she wasn’t alone in capturing footage for Jaws.  Her late husband, Ron Taylor, was right there with her.  The two of them worked together as an underwater cinematography team in capturing these monstrous creatures. Say what you will but I will never not be afraid of sharks.

Aitken takes advantage of remastered 16mm footage taken from over 50 years.  Think of what Brett Morgen did for Jane Goodall in Jane a few years ago.  These two films would make for an amazing double feature together!  The remastered footage is glorious to say the least.  I mean, I’d be too scared to go under water knowing that sharks are in the area but not Valerie Taylor.  Taylor has been doing this since the 1950s and yet, Aitken leaves out some of her story.  It’s not so much because the filmmaker wants to but because there is only so much you can fit in a 90-minute run time.  Maybe an extended director’s cut is in the filmmaker’s future?  Or a sequel altogether?  We shall see.

I watched a pre-fest screener ahead of Sundance.  Unfortunately, I experienced some video lag that extended the film to about two hours.  It’s not ideal but Sundance viewers shouldn’t have the same experience as I did.  However, this does not change the fact that a pioneer like Valerie Taylor should be celebrated.

While cinephiles will be attracted to Playing with Sharks because of Jaws, Valerie Taylor’s story is so much more than just one film.

FEATURING:  Valerie Taylor, Ben Sagata, Carl Roessler, Douglas Seifert, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Howard Hall, Jayne Jenkins, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jeremiah Sullivan, Mark Heighes. Michele Hall, Rodney Fox, Stan Waterman, Wendy Benchley

Playing with Sharks holds its world premiere during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Program.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.