Film Review: My Octopus Teacher

Spoilers ahead.

My Octopus Teacher.

The 2021 Oscar binging, for what was an obviously unique and challenging year for movies (yes, JUST movies), has begun with the 2020 documentary film, My Octopus Teacher, which was nominated in the Documentary (Feature) category. It’s available on Netflix and is a Netflix original film.

The film is directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, documenting a full year as filmmaker Craig Foster forges a relationship with a common octopus (what a silly name for an extraordinary creature; there is nothing common about any octopus) in a part of kelp forest in South Africa.

Folks, this 85-minute documentary, in which Foster dives into the kelp day after day, making inroads with the octopus, becoming acquainted and then infatuated with the octopus, is one of the most beautiful, gorgeous “anythings” I’ve ever seen put to film. Not just in the realm of nature documentaries, but in all of film. The images captured here of the octopus, many of which are close-ups of her beautiful eyes and the cephalopod limbs’ suckers, as well as the kelp forest itself, are absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The vibrancy almost doesn’t seem real it’s so stark and wonderful, as if I splashed into the most lovely coloring book.

Pictures really don’t do it justice.

But it’s more than just a budding romance of two unlikely people — a despondent human trying to find himself while ostensibly trying to find an octopus and an octopus who will live a brutishly short, but beautiful year — it’s also part horror film, as a pyjama shark tries to eat the octopus, and part philosophical meditation, asking the Big Questions, most prominently, “What does it mean to be part of the world rather than a visitor?” And, “What does it mean to be part of a world in which such creatures, like the octopus, exist?

Throughout the film, we see just how extraordinary the octopus is. First, in how deceptive and creative she is. At times, she seems small enough to fit comfortably on Foster’s hand, and at other times, she seems like a towering monster floating through the ocean. She uses her ingenuity, like covering up with seashells, to escape the pyjama shark. And most remarkable, when the pyjama shark is able to snatch one of her limbs, within 100 days, she grows it back and is okay again. She grew another limb back in 100 days!

One of the most touching moments of the film is that, as she’s recovering from the pyjama shark’s bite, she loses her vibrant colors. But is still beautiful despite the loss of vibrancy? That she remains a remarkable creature, even drained of color? The metaphor there writes itself, folks.

This looks like a painting.

But perhaps more profoundly than how intelligent the creature is, is that she seems to grow fond of Foster and his presence in her space, as if she’s been waiting for a being on her level to enter her world. One of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen is when he extends his hand and she extends her limb, and for as long as he can hold his breath (he’s not using tuba gear or a wet suite to try to be as “authentically” present as possible), they share this almost handshake-like embrace. At one point, she even goes with him nearly back to the top.

And still, even more profound than that is the overarching point about what it means to be a living being in the world. Despite her brutish life, where literally every moment of her very short existence (again, a year to three years tops) is one of constant danger, she still needs those moments of playfulness. Yes, playfulness! There’s another beautiful moment captured on film of her playing with the fish around her. There is something about us beings that in spite of our impending doom and how relatively quick it arrives, playfulness is something fundamental to our being. Levity. Maybe that is the way to withstand the brutishness? Levity to counter the brutishness, so we can breathe within that hellish dichotomy.

There are some short side plots about Foster and his background, although it’s not fleshed out in nearly the same detail. In fact, I’m still not entirely sure what happened to him that made him despondent early on as a filmmaker — like, he’s interested in becoming “of” that world of nature rather than an outside observer, but it’s not clear where the despondency came from — and then subsequently drove him to this octopus odyssey. In addition, Foster’s son sort of gets shoehorned in there as someone picking up the torch when dad gets older, loving the waters and such. But again, it’s not really fleshed out and it feels like exactly that: a short aside. Foster comes across more authentic (and even chokes up at one point) talking about the octopus than he does his own son.

But, in the end, we get the kind of ending you expect: The octopus mates, has babies and then dies, with the pyjama shark taking her desecrated body away. Because that’s the wild. That’s nature. And Foster grapples with that Big Question. As a human, he’s obviously in a unique position. When the pyjama shark came the first time trying to eat the octopus, he could have intervened. When the pyjama shark got her limb, he could have intervened. In a way, he’s still intervening by even documenting all of this and forming the bond with the octopus, but he made the deliberate decision to stay out of it. To just watch. To not upset the balance of the wild.

And in that way, perhaps he’s still an outsider, not “of” that world, even without his scuba tank and wet suit? Because, try as we might, humans are in another hellish dichotomy of both being outsiders to nature and “of” nature.

As with any nature documentary, especially one this beautiful, you want the human to get the heck out of the way, so we can see the more interesting animal and nature it inhabits. For the most part, Foster does. He doesn’t overstep or overstay his welcome. And in fact, much like Foster, I too, got addicted to going down in the magical-seeming, surreal kelp forest and observing the observer observe.

I highly, highly recommend this documentary. Let’s just say, the other ones in the field better bring something to the table like re-growing a cephalopod limb.


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