National Geographic Documentary Films has acquired the worldwide rights to Sally Aitken’s documentary about Australian diver and filmmaker Valerie Taylor following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
Chosen as one of only 10 films from around the world for the World Cinema Documentary Competition section, Playing with Sharks charts Taylor’s transformation from a champion slayer to a passionate marine conservationist through remastered film footage taken across 50 years.
The film was created and produced by Bettina Dalton, WildBear Entertainment, and written and directed by Aitken. The executive producers include Alan Erson for WildBear; Anna Godas and Oli Harbottle for TDog; and Paul Wiegard for Madman Entertainment.
Dalton tells IF National Geographic Documentary Films is the “perfect home” for Playing with Sharks.
“National Geographic not only has a lot of gravitas, but also a lot of provenance and reach,” she says.
“They have the right ethos for this film, in terms of the shark conservation and the way they promote and support pioneers like Valerie.
“Dogwoof was with us all the way as both sales agents and investors; they committed to the journey with us from my first pitch to Anna Godas in Sundance 2019 right through to the final deal, which they negotiated and completed with great finesse.”
National Geographic global scripted content and documentary films EVP Carolyn Bernstein describes the deal as “a coming home of sorts” for Valerie, who appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1973.
“I can’t think of a more perfect film premiering at Sundance this year for our Nat Geo Docs Film banner than Playing with Sharks,” she says.
“Valerie’s thirst for adventure and love for marine life jumps off the screen — hers is a truly unique and aspirational story and one we can’t wait to share with audiences worldwide.”
After describing the Sundance selection as a “dream come true”, Aitken was given more reason to celebrate following the documentary’s premiere as reviewers gave their verdict.
Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney called the film “visually stunning”, while singling out Aitken and editor Adrian Rostirolla for praise.
“In addition to the disarming personality of her subject, seasoned Australian TV director Aitken’s invigorating dive into the deep is distinguished by the sheer beauty of its archival material,” he wrote.
“There’s a lovely poetry in editor Adrian Rostirolla’s intercutting of footage of the young Taylor diving with the present-day veteran, wincing as she squeezes her aching shoulders into a wetsuit before taking the plunge into a world that keeps her ageless.”
IndieWire‘s Christian Blauvelt was similarly impressed with the perspectives of the film, which he noted had “more wonders on display second-by-second than most others you’re likely to see this year”.
Dalton says the positive resonance of Valerie’s character with the Sundance audience is “gratifying”.
“People seeing the film have loved and embraced her achievements, humour, courage, and sassiness, all of which came through so powerfully in the film,” she says.
“They have also been moved by what is happening with sharks in the world and her commitment right through to her older years.”
Playing with Sharks a WildBear Entertainment production, with principal production investment and development support from Screen Australia.
It is developed and financed with the assistance of Screen NSW.