Nature documentaries, epitomised by David Attenborough, generally take an objective, observant look at the natural world. Mothers have children, and those children get eaten by wolves (or whatever the location dictates), while the crew coldly watches on.
My Octopus Teacher is not a nature documentary in that sense whatsoever. It is also not an animated children’s film, despite what the title may suggest. It is the story of filmmaker Craig Foster’s unexpected bond with an octopus and how his life changes because of the experience.
At the start of the film, Foster has grown disillusioned with the stresses of work and modern life. To fix this, he turns to freediving in kelp forests near his home in Cape Town. Through vulnerable, honest interviews and the footage gained from almost a year of daily dives, we weave between stunning, exciting natural drama and deep human emotion.
Diving without a suit or scuba gear in the frigid Atlantic, the filmmakers’ instincts are honed: shots are sharp, but patient. The environment and camera are merged as Foster becomes part of the ecosystem, allowing him to capture transcendental images of alien-like sea life. With these images, the crisp sound design bubbles and cracks to the rhythms of the shallows and the forest.
Your breath may well be taken as Foster and the octopus float together, waltzing to a swelling score. The dark blue landscape, three-dimensional with towers of kelp and crawling sea stars, becomes familiar as we inhabit it. The octopus acts as Foster’s guide, a friendly intelligent alien showing him her world.
The octopus, which Foster tenderly refers to as ‘she’ throughout the film, is, above all else, smart. As she encounters life-or-death situations, she plays, learns, strategizes, and survives. Despite being largely unscientific, the film captures moments of both whimsical and pointed, human-like behaviour – plenty enough to fill a study and certainly enough to capture one’s attention.
But beyond biological curiosities, the other core pillar of the film is Foster’s emotional journey. Throughout, Foster’s thinly-veiled psychological projection sees him empathise with the octopus, their lives mirroring one another in his mind. He goes from his stressed, potentially depressed self to a more sensitive, grounded one as their bond grows. Just as we turn to films like this to relieve our stress, the kelp forest acts as Foster’s escape. We see the trust between our two characters build firsthand, and as it does we are drawn further into that forest, which, despite being murky and strange, is full of hope.
The film reminds us of the importance of consistency and connection – to make sure we look outside of ourselves, have empathy, and notice the beauty of the world we live in. The seascape Foster shares with us is local and personal, having holidayed in a house nearby in his childhood. It is only through the dedication of diving every day and deeply observing that his view shifts. One can only guess what intimate details and possible connections we could find at our fingertips if we gave the same attention to our worlds.
This combination of emotion and visual awe is why My Octopus Teacher won Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars and why it is a must-watch. It is a testament to humanity’s ability to connect and to empathise, a gentle reminder that the natural world is omnipresent, its lessons and intricacies quietly waiting to be seen. Implicitly, it reminds us of the importance of conserving these spaces, employing a gentler tactic than the justified guilt-tripping of more blatantly environmental films. But that is not the message of this film, and its strength lies in its honesty and vulnerability – not in preachy virtue-signaling.
As an Oscar winner, it stands somewhat alone: there was no hard-hitting stone turning or major event to cover. My Octopus Teacher is a tender, offbeat film whose premise is not necessarily Oscar material. Once you watch, you see it is.
Illustration: Verity Laycock