FILM TITLE: MY OCTOPUS TEACHER
CAST AND NARRATOR: CRAIG FOSTER
DIRECTORS: PIPPA EHRLICH, JAMES REED
PRODUCER: CRAIG FOSTER
DISTRIBUTED AND PRODUCED BY: NETFLIX (September, 2020)
AN OFF THE FENCE AND SEA CHANGE PROJECT
A South African documentary film-maker, burnt-out, facing a mid-life crisis, and questioning his life’s work, intuitively turns to the sea for solace. There he encounters a chance meeting with one of the oceans’ most mystifying and intelligent creatures.
This triggers a most remarkable year-long journey of underwater exploration, as well as personal reflection and change. His daily forays into the kelp forests of the Atlantic Ocean off South Africa’s stunning Cape Province coast where he lives, eventually forge an extraordinary relationship with a female octopus, which becomes his teacher.
Craig Foster is well known for his (and his brother’s) The Great Dance, one of the best films ever done on the San (Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert. Here he turns his hand to filming and writing an underwater narrative that is as compelling as it is moving.
It is an unlikely creature with which to forge such a friendship; and Foster sensitively captures the slow, subtle evolution of contact he makes with the octopus, eventually gaining her trust. The scenes showing him touching, swimming with and interacting with the animal are enthralling. This coupled with Foster’s gentle, soft-spoken, ruminative narration touch the heart, and at times bring tears to the eyes.
“A lot of people say that an octopus is like an alien. But the strange thing is that as you get closer to them, you realise that you are very similar in a lot of ways… There’s something to this creature that is very unusual. There’s something to learn here,” Foster declares, as he draws the viewer closer to this underwater world.
Deciding that he would snorkel in this area every day and “just wait”, a picture eventually emerges of the octopus’s habits and behaviour, both as predator and prey, highlighting her astonishing intelligence at devising hunting strategies, as well as ways to avoid her primary enemy, the shark.
Alongside these revelations, Foster is commenting on his own personal challenges and growth: “I had to have a radical change in my life. And the only way I knew to do it was to be in this ocean with her.”
The changes he experiences involve not only his relationship with animals and Nature, but with his son, with whom he reconnects and strengthens his bond, in part through sharing the wonders of the sea together.
“I hadn’t been a person who was overly sentimental towards animals before. But then I released that I was changing. My relationship with people, humans, was changing,” Foster says.
Perhaps the greatest lesson the octopus taught him brought a change in attitude towards the natural world. He begins to see himself not as a visitor to the kelp forest, but rather as belonging to it, being a part of it, thus bridging the gap between humans and animals.
When at the end of the film the octopus retreats to a small cave to lay her eggs, gradually weakening as she declines to eat during the incubation process, and thus losing her life to give life to her offspring, she is suddenly whisked away by a shark, her tentacles trailing from its mouth as it swiftly swims away.
This quiet yet evocative film stays with you, arousing – perhaps surprisingly - strong feelings of tenderness towards this animal. A thoroughly absorbing statement about humankind’s relationship to wild animals and wild places. Not to be missed.
By Linda Pfotenhauer
© copyright: Linda Pfotenhauer