My Octopus Teacher (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary “My Octopus Teacher” tells the story of a man who felt he needed a radical change in his life. Inspired by his relationship with the ocean as a child along with the time he spent learning how to track animals from the San people of the Kalahari Desert, filmmaker Craig Foster decided to go back in the water with the hope of re-centering himself. And what he finds in the kelp forest near Cape Town, South Africa is Octopus vulgaris (common octopus), highly curious about the human visiting her territory. Foster followed this octopus for about a year and a rollercoaster of emotions was captured on film. Nature lovers should not miss this doc.
The kelp forest offers astounding beauty. Foster does not make a point of it, but when the camera goes down on the ocean floor, there is a richness of life that can be found in every corner. When you think that a spot offers nothing but white sand, something suddenly moves inside it—a patient predator waiting for unwary prey. When the camera is turned upwards onto the surface of the water, the light is so beguiling that it feels like looking through an elegant veil draped between two worlds. The work is so poetic at times that at one point I caught myself thinking, “What does a sea creature think about when it looks up at the surface?”
Then a different type of beauty is captured as the free-diving Foster swims through kelps, various schools of fish, pyjama sharks, jellyfish, and unrecognizable detritus. The longer we spend time underwater, we note that “kelp forest” is such a general way of describing a place teeming with complexity. There is geography within that forest. We learn where sharks hang out, for instance, and which places they tend to avoid and why. And performing a dive at night turns what we know inside out. There is never a dull moment because the environment is so alive, so alien, yet incredibly humbling. It is educational—and spiritual—nearly every step of the way.
There is plenty of narration—which I imagine will rub some viewers the wrong way. But it is necessary because right from the beginning it is established that the film is a personal account of a someone who desperately needed to be reminded that he is alive; that he matters as an artist, a husband, and a father; and that he has something of value to impart as a naturalist. This is not strictly a nature documentary. It is a documentary with nature elements filtered through the spirit of a human being who is down or depressed about his own worth.
And so it is critical we hear how Foster expresses surprise, for instance, when an invertebrate, one that is well-known within the scientific community as being a highly intelligent antisocial predator, appears to want to engage and develop a bond with a stranger who drops by on a daily basis. Via narration, he describes what occurs in the water or what he thinks and feels when the octopus is not in her usual place of shelter. But discernible viewers will appreciate the growth in the man—that having a purpose, having something to look forward to on a daily basis, is directly related to the subject eventually having the ability to break out of the rut, to free himself from the shackles of great unhappiness that bogged him down. In this film, diving is a metaphor for self-reflection.