Film review of My Octopus Teacher, featuring documentary filmmaker Craig Foster and a female octopus in the kelp forest off the Western Cape of South Africa
From the very first image of this film, we are drawn into another world. A man wearing only a mask, camera, and his swim trunks, swimming with an octopus. They are clearly connected, a feeling of lightness and intimacy between them.
And so begins a journey for the viewer like no other I have ever seen in a documentary film. There are moments when I gasped, “This can’t be real!” And yet it is very real, and also a story that resonates of ancient myths and fairy tales: a man in search of himself encountering a magical beast who teaches him what he needs to know to become a whole person.
That is the human side. And yet, the brilliance of this piece is that our identification shifts from the man, Craig Foster, to the object of his fascination and affection: the female octopus. He asks, “I am leaning so much from her, what is she getting from me? Is it possible that a being so intelligent can find nourishment by interacting with a creature so different from her own?”
This seems to be true, for as he shows us all of her survival strategies that have sustained her species for thousands of years, her intelligence is as palpable as her grace, beauty, and curiosity. We begin to experience the story from her perspective: a creature of the depths, living moment to moment to survive, to disguise herself from predators, and then—here is this new creature with white arms and legs and a strange appendage he puts in the ocean floor in front of my den…She reaches out of the den with her tentacles and inspects the camera: it is not a living thing, and will not harm her. But will the man? Her story has mythical resonance, Beauty encountering the Beast, even as she also encounters the devouring pajama sharks, who try to eat her, and later serve as dark angels in a moment that literally takes your breath away.
There are many levels of meaning to be found in this film. Like every great work of art, it offers a diversity of experience for each viewer. For me personally, it has brought me closer to the “beautiful octopus” in my own psyche. I have realized how quickly I abandon myself and let myself be pulled into divisive politics and fear of the lethality of the virus. What did the octopus do when the pajama shark attacked? She dived into her den, saving all but one tentacle from his snapping jaws. It grows back in time, her body regenerating what she had lost.
I use her as a role model, taking time to return to the “den” of my own self. From there I can experience calm, even as a watchful eye peers out. I believe it is important to pay attention to the sorrows of the world, but to keep a larger frame: change comes slowly. We must take care of each other and tend our inner lives. The more calm we are inside, the more we can support those around us to discover resilience and even hope.
Credits for My Octopus Teacher. Netflix original documentary. Directed by Pippa Ehrllich and James Reed, Director of photography, Roger Horrocks, Produced by, and featuring Craig Foster.