Amid the glitz and glamour of the 93rd Academy Awards, an unusual competitor emerged for the title of Best Documentary. Created by South African documentarian Craig Foster, “My Octopus Teacher” provides a poignant take on the fragility and sanctity of life through an unlikely lens. In his journey through the Great African Sea Forest, Foster details the life and times of one of the ocean’s most precocious and playful creatures: the common octopus.
In the wake of a personal crisis, Foster finds himself burnt out and depressed. On a whim, he decides to return to his childhood pastime of free-diving. Among the towering fronds of kelp, he encounters a strangely gregarious octopus. He returns every day to film and interact with her, forming a touching, unusual friendship. Unlike many of its contemporaries, “My Octopus Teacher” is no mere educational vessel. While viewers will undoubtedly gain considerable familiarity with the peculiarities of the species by the end of the documentary, its purpose is far grander in scope.
Our eight-legged ingenue captures the heart of not only Foster but the world through her surprising wit and indefatigable friendliness. Foster’s choice to pursue the same animal for an extended period of time creates an intimate connection between the octopus and the onlooker. It’s an unusual tactic to utilize in a nature documentary but only adds to the quirky charm of the film.
Cephalopods are the most intelligent species of mollusk, and the octopus’s situational resilience serves as proof. We see her hunting fish using Foster as a human barrier, using shells and seaweed to conceal herself from hungry sharks and even walking across the ocean floor with her tentacles. She is able to change shape and color in order to mimic a piece of kelp, a rock or even another marine animal. Her incredible intelligence is juxtaposed with her corporal fragility, as her body is essentially liquid. On average, her species only live to be about a year old, hence she must learn extraordinarily quickly.
The cinematography is exquisite, the calming backdrop of ocean-blurred sunlight and kelpy curtains setting the stage for a vibrant mise-en-scène studded with aquatic actors of every shape and size. Co-directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed intersperse selected full shots of the forest with intimate close-ups of Foster and his octopus friend. Capturing the vastness of the sea is both an insurmountable and overwhelming task, hence they elect a microcosmic approach to filmmaking.
Indeed, the documentary’s greatest strength lies in the sense of intimacy it cultivates. Foster and the octopus forge a bond that can only be described as a friendship; the tone of the film is akin to that of the ever-popular dog movie. The octopus grants him the unique privilege to explore her ocean world and become a part of her life. The occasional shot of the octopus latched onto Foster’s arm or chest is unexpectedly tender. One can’t help but wonder if she experiences, as Foster puts it, “some octopus level of joy.”
The anthropomorphization of the octopus leaves both Foster and the audience emotionally invested in her wellbeing. In a nail-biting encounter with a shark, she is left wounded and incredibly weak. Foster initially does not intervene, as he wishes to preserve the boundaries of natural processes. However, he has become so attached that he eventually attempts to bring her food, hoping to nurse her back to health. Unlike most nature documentaries, Foster takes on the role of observer and participant. Instead of a detached narrator and a faceless camera operator, we see his experience interacting firsthand with the inhabitants of the kelp forest.
Through his return to the natural world, Foster rediscovers the strength and beauty of the wild. Perhaps more importantly, he finds himself personally invigorated by the sense of peace and “octopus joy” the forest grants him. His initial depression and disenfranchisement with the world lessen considerably, and he learns to enjoy life again. Paradoxically, his time with the octopus actually improves his relationships with other human beings.
The unexpected humanity of the octopus truly drives the film home. The lifespan of an octopus grants us insight into the mysteries of life as a whole. An octopus doesn’t get the better part of a century to live. Everything they learn, they must learn quickly. The film concludes with the octopus retreating to her den to lay her eggs. As her journey comes full circle, we are left with the sinking feeling that accompanies nature’s inevitabilities.
Her life emphasizes the cyclical nature of mortality; life is valuable because it ends and meaningful because it continues. A few weeks after her death, Foster is free-diving with his son when he discovers a tiny octopus floating amid the waves. It’s the right species and the right size — it could conceivably be one of her offspring. Even in her death, she continues to give. Her journey runs parallel to Foster’s relationship with his son; parental altruism transcends the species boundary.
In the film’s conclusion, we see Foster tear up slightly at the thought of his cephalopod companion. To an outsider, the occurrence seems bizarre, but the arc of the film inevitably leads to this moment for this is not an educational film or a scientific exposé on the behaviors of the common octopus — it’s a love story.
The brilliance of “My Octopus Teacher” lies in its simplicity. It’s extraordinarily subjective, extraordinarily human. Ironically enough, the singularity of the tale is what makes it universal, for Foster’s octopus is by no means standard or commonplace. Rather, she defies the characteristics of her species through her social nature, her playfulness. She is intelligent and resilient, but so are most octopi. Her defining traits are those that make her less like an octopus and more like a human. Her defining traits are those that make her less like a teacher and more like a friend.
Daily Arts writer Darby Williams can be reached at email@example.com.