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Going nautical at the Nantucket Film Festival

Valerie Taylor underwater wearing a chain mail suit being bitten on the arm by a shark in 1982.
Valerie Taylor underwater wearing a chain mail suit being bitten on the arm by a shark in 1982.Ron & Valerie Taylor

Located as it is on an island, it’s fitting that the Nantucket Film Festival has programmed several documentaries on nautical topics. Here are two of them.

Giedrė Žickytė's “The Jump” (streaming June 17, starting at noon, through June 28, 11:59 p.m.) takes place on Nantucket’s sister island Martha’s Vineyard, where on Thanksgiving Day 1970 Simas Kudirka, a Lithuanian sailor on a Soviet fishing boat, jumped onto a US Coast Guard cutter and begged for asylum.

Furious, the Soviets insisted on boarding the cutter and retrieving the fisherman. The commander and crew of the US vessel wanted to save Kudirka but under orders from superiors in Washington, D.C., were compelled to release him to the Soviets. The Americans looked on helplessly as Kudirka, kicking and screaming, was dragged away en route to a gulag, if not execution.

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News footage aroused outrage, embarrassing the Nixon administration, and blame devolved to the cutter officers, who were just following orders (the skipper, recalling the incident now, still tears up). Despite intense diplomatic efforts and international demonstrations the Soviets remained adamant.

And what of Kudirka? Today he is a roly-poly old man, relating his story for Žickytė while revisiting key locations, such as the Coast Guard cutter and the KGB prison where he served part of his sentence. He is kind of a Werner Herzog character — odd, endearing, and gamely enduring the absurdities of life.

Simas Kudirka in "The Jump."
Simas Kudirka in "The Jump."Nantucket Film Festival

If you asked Australian conservationist Valerie Taylor, the subject of Sally Aitken’s “Playing with Sharks” (streaming June 19, starting at 10 p.m., through June 28, at 11:59 p.m.) her greatest regret in life she probably would say working with Steven Spielberg on “Jaws” (1975). Already famed for being a champion spear-fisherman and a marine cinematographer, she and her late husband, Ron Taylor, had contributed bloodcurdling footage of them gamboling with great white sharks feasting on a whale carcass to the sensational hit movie “Blue Water, White Death” (1971). Making “Jaws” seemed a lark by comparison, but after it was released what they expected to be a blip of a B-movie proved to be a cultural event. Viewers were terrified to go into the water. Sharks were vilified and hunted down by macho trophy hunters and it seemed like the species was doomed to extinction.

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Taylor was shocked and dismayed. “‘Jaws’ set things back,” she admits. Though the film was pure fiction people believed it. To counteract the shark panic it inspired, she and her husband hit the talk show circuit, reassuring viewers that the danger from sharks was infinitesimal compared to the risks of just getting to the beach. “You don’t walk around New York worrying about King Kong,” Taylor said. “It’s more dangerous to use your swimming pool.”

But the Taylors were speaking from a compromised position. “You say sharks aren’t dangerous,” says one host. “And yet both of you have taken part in two movies that portray sharks as being very dangerous. How do you justify that?”

“They didn’t listen to me,” says the octogenarian Taylor today. “Frankly, they didn’t care. And the killing still went on.”

Taylor decided to use the medium that put the sharks in danger in the first place to save them. She took up the case of the gray nurse shark, a 10-footer with scary teeth that is harmless to humans. It had been hunted to extinction off the Florida coast and faced the same fate in Australia. To prevent this she made films of her playing with them like they were pet dogs and also wrote countless letters to politicians on their behalf and at last the gray nurse shark was deemed a protected species, the first to be so categorized. Since then, for over four decades, Taylor has worked tirelessly for the preservation of sharks and other endangered species.

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In one powerfully affecting sequence Taylor and her husband struggle to extricate a great white from a fishing line. The creature patiently waits as they free it and shows no signs of aggression. “It swam out to sea,” recalls Taylor, “and was caught by a fisherman five months later.”

Go to nantucketfilmfestival.org.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.