“The fact that a film like this is on Disney+, I would say that the first thing you could do is to share, is to say go and watch this film, because that is something we can do collectively.” That quote is from Sally Aitkin, director and writer of Playing With Sharks, a National Geographic Documentary Film that premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. During an international virtual screening ahead of the Disney+ debut on July 23rd, invited guests were treated to a screening of the film followed by a Q&A with documentary film subject Valerie Taylor, Sally Aitkin, and producer Bettina Dalton. When asked what viewers can do after watching the film, the director shared that getting as many people around the world to experience Valerie’s story is a great start.
Citing Dr. Sylvia Earle’s Hope Spots program, Sally Aitkin shared how a few individuals in an area can be inspired to work together to make a localized response. “By sharing Valerie’s story and Valeries’ legacy via the ability of a global streamer, I do think that is one first step that, even when we are in various stages of lockdown, we can all do from our living room. And the other thing is that no action is too small… One person really can make a difference.” Nowhere is that message more true than in the story of Valerie Taylor, as depicted in Playing With Sharks.
When you see the film, you might think that the narrative told itself, but when production began, Sally and Bettina weren’t sure what the balance would look like. Would they use much of the modern footage and interviews? Would it rely solely on the 5,000 hours of archival footage they had access to? What was the right balance? Well, the answer came to Sally Aitkin like a lightning bolt at the end of the day on the first day of filming contemporary footage of Valerie Taylor.
Due to the warm waters at that time of year, the first modern sequence filmed was Valerie’s return to Fiji, a favorite diving spot of the ocean conservationist and her late husband Ron Taylor. “On the dive boat on the way home, I saw Valerie and she was just sitting on the boat looking out at the ocean,” Sally revealed. “I had a moment of thinking I’ve seen that image before.” That night in her shared hotel room with producer Bettina Dalton, Sally pulled up an image of Valerie Taylor taken in 1964 in the exact same pose looking out at the ocean. She knew in an instant that she had just found the heart of the film. “The fact that Valerie’s story is so documented and equally that Valerie was a very full blooded, full fleshed participant in the film, that was something to embrace.” The two images show a person at opposite ends of life, one looking out at the world wondering what the future holds, the other showing a woman who has lived a full life and has a higher level of wisdom and understanding. “If we’re lucky enough, that’s all of our lives,” Sally Aitkin concluded about the poignant message she happened upon during this journey.
Back to the theme of how a few people can make a tremendous difference, producer Bettina Dalton shared that this location in Fiji had a coral reef that was nearly brought to extinction because all of the sharks were hunted in the region. Valerie and Ron Taylor worked closely with a local biologist, tossing fish heads over the dead reef, which eventually lured sharks back to the area. “That reef today that you see came back from the brink of almost complete extermination,” Bettina shared of this remarkable success story that also created a tourism industry, one of the few places in the world where divers are almost guaranteed to see sharks in the wild. It’s a place in the world where sharks are worth more alive than dead. “Even if you can’t dive, you can’t get in the water and you’re landlocked, there is a way to participate in shark conservation around the world,” Bettina added, citing “Adopt-a-Shark” type programs or encouraging donations to ocean conservation initiatives.
With Valerie Taylor once again in lockdown in Australia, she shared her feelings of hopelessness at this current time, adding that many of the protected areas of the ocean that she worked hard to secure are currently unprotected, with sharks being illegally hunted there, mostly for their fins. “Everyone will look at the film and they’ll want to make a difference, but they can’t,” she sadly shared, adding that she believes there are just two years left to reverse mankind’s harmful impact on the oceans through overfishing, hunting sharks for their fins, and plastic pollution. However, with a little prodding, she did share a success story.
“There is a very small country called Brunei,” Valerie Taylor explained. “The boss is a sultan, he’s very conservation-minded. He has made shark finning banned on his reef, he’s made taking of the shark for any reason banned on his reef.” Valerie and her friend were flown to Brunei by the Sultan to talk on TV, explaining to the country’s Chinese population (roughly 19%) why they won’t be able to purchase shark products anymore in the country. Brunei was the first country to ban shark hunting five years ago and while no other countries have completely banned hunting sharks, many countries are adding them to their endangered species list. With public pressure, current laws that make it legal to hunt sharks for sport and sell their fins could be changed.
You can see Playing With Sharks starting Friday, July 23rd, on Disney+. And if you feel inspired by Valerie Taylor’s story and the important shark conservation work she’s started, take Sally Aitkin’s advice and share it with your friends. Who knows, you might even start a grassroots movement that could help further protect the ocean’s most important top predator.