Rather than the scientific distance customary to nature documentary, My Octopus Teacher tells an intimate story.
Nominated for the best feature documentary award, My Octopus Teacher follows the year-long story of the bond which developed between Craig Foster and the wild female octopus whom he visits and films. Shot with the assistance of James Reid of ‘Blue Planet II’, the film takes place mainly in the mystical underwater space of the kelp forest by Foster’s home in South Africa. I found myself entranced by the intimate story of a sort of ‘forbidden friendship’, as I am so accustomed to a far greater sense of scientific distance and scale in nature documentaries.
Indeed, journalist Elle Hunt has described My Octopus Teacher as “strikingly heart-over-head” in her review and I have to agree. Her assertion that the film depicts “the transformative power of engaging with the natural world” is an especially fitting one, as the documentary constructs its overarching narrative around Foster’s journey back to health after experiencing a ‘burn-out’ at work. Hunt also highlights that it is the way in which Foster engages with the underwater world that is transformative, rather than the forest being transformative in and of itself. Viewed in this way, the documentary accentuates the importance of the dynamic between the human and non-human realms. It is the emotional exchange and mutual respect which Foster and the octopus share which offers space for reflection, refiguring a seemingly common mollusc into a subject of pure admiration and redemptive wonder.
A distinctive stylistic aspect of My Octopus Teacher is its deeply personal narrative arc: assisted by the slow pacing of the documentary, the story unfolds organically, as time progresses in a linear manner. The plot is structured to document the start of the relationship and, with the assistance of time headings, we are guided through a plot which feels entirely careful and deliberate. In a world where we are surrounded by fast paced dramas and ten second Tik-Tik videos, this gradual pacing has a meditative effect. Indeed, I felt myself forced to concentrate and reflect in a way that other documentaries do not allow for, as they flip from one subject to another, shift between disparate locations, and showcase a variety of different human perspectives.
My Octopus Teacher has only two filming locations for the majority of its runtime. We are submerged in the magical underwater with Foster fixated on the octopus, his voice over pointing out the subtle details and intricacies of her form and behaviours. To add variation to this technique, the documentary frequently cuts to where Foster is sitting in his house and we are sitting opposite him, listening to his voice shaping our perception of the action. “And then I approached her too fast, and that’s when she left the den and got a real fright”, he says at one point. The voiceover is storyteller-like, crafting a narrative and building characters. Jump cuts bring us out of the water and remind us of the power of the underwater realm as it stays with Foster in his memories, transforming the way he views his everyday life. The duality between the sea and the house draws attention to the importance of blurring the boundaries between domestic and wild, such that we are not cut off from the ecosystems which neighbour us
Moreover, the juxtaposition between the grey-browns of Foster’s house and the beautiful vivid blues, textures, and tones of the kelp forest acts to accentuate the stunning underwater imagery which the filmmakers have been able to capture. Film columnist and critic Guy Lodge’s description of this as a “a vision of an earthy parallel universe” is incredibly apt. I still think of the long flowing strips of dark green kelp contrasted with the pink spiked anemones which are dotted across the white sand of the ocean floor, along with the fantastic images of the octopus picking up a whole array of different shells and small stones with her suckers so as to hide herself from a preying shark. The peaceful violin music that plays alongside the captivating photography creates a deeply transporting mood while adding an aura of romance to the film, painting Foster’s connection as so much more than simply scientific curiosity.
The overall plot is also highly engaging, suffused as it is with multiple points of emotional highs and lows: from the joyful first physical contact between Foster and the octopus when she eventually allows him to touch her, to her disappearance in the first part of the film and the pulse-racing pursuit from the shark and loss of one of her tentacles. These emotional points of happiness and tension allow the documentary to engage our empathy and showcase the subtle nuances of wild nature, experiencing it as something which is in constant flux and ongoing demise and renewal. More than nearly any other nature documentary I have seen, My Octopus Teacher displays the non-human world as one ceaselessly alive and dynamic. The forest is not simply static – it is a ‘nature’ that is always there, but it is something vulnerable and thus precious, with so much to offer.
Although Foster does not go into significant detail about humans’ harmful effects on marine life and the threats of global warming, touching only briefly on his work with the charity Sea Change Trust at the film’s conclusion, most viewers would naturally have these issues in mind as we watch this beautifully complex yet vulnerable creature in her delicate habitat. Perhaps the story could have benefitted from some more scientific background and overview, such as information linking nature to positive mental health. However, it does show us what our perception of and interactions with nature could be, highlighting what can be gained from it, all through its stripped back focalisation on a very basic two-way relationship. Indeed, the documentary has left me with the message that we should immerse ourselves in the world in such a way that we do not expect or require nature to be simply a compilation of raw materials.
As Foster demonstrates, it is essential to open ourselves to allow a transmission of tranquil energy that connects us to the planet in a way pressurised modern life and a consumerist culture cannot. Education is shown to be a constant process not restricted to the classroom and trained teachers, but present all around us in the natural world, if only we open our eyes to look for it.
Citations: Hunt, Elle, ‘An octopus 'love story' on Netflix has caused thoughts to run wild. Why?’, The Guardian (2020). The article can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/24/octopus-love-story-netflix
Lodge, Guy, ‘My Octopus Teacher’ Review: An Eight-Legged Freak Becomes a Friend in Netflix’s Gorgeous Hit Nature Doc’, Variety (2020). The article can be found here: https://variety.com/2020/film/reviews/my-octopus-teacher-review-an-eight-legged-freak-becomes-a-friend-in-netflixs-gorgeous-hit-nature-doc-1234874255/