Movie Review: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher is a nature documentary about a tender relationship between a man and an octopus. It’s actually quite difficult to talk about the film without it sounding a little bit funny. It’s uncommon for man to think we’ve got anything to learn from lesser species, especially those that live underwater. Even the title was a bit jarring at first, spawning a series of possible sequel ideas… My Octopus Parole Officer, My Octopus Lifeguard… the list goes on. This could be due to the concept of an alien creature like the octopus and the word itself, which is funny to say and has become a bit silly thanks to Ringo Starr’s hit Octopus’s Garden and one of Roger Moore’s better spy films, Octopussy.

The truth is we actually know very little about these incredible and intelligent sea creatures. Some based our predictions of the 2010 World Cup on the decision-making ability of Paul the Octopus while many still think that calamari is octopus. Perhaps its our arrogance as the self-appointed superior species and “custodians” of the earth and the fact that French conservationist, Jacques Cousteau, didn’t make the octopus a year-long focus of his many deep sea adventures. Wherever you fall in the spectrum of conservation, one thing’s for sure… My Octopus Teacher is a must-see for all ages and speaks to overarching efforts to respect our environment and fellow inhabitants.

The documentary captures the unique friendship a burnt out filmmaker develops with an octopus over the course of its lifetime. Having been through a tough time with his family at the end of many busy years of work, Craig Foster decided to recoup by free-diving the kelp forests near his water’s edge home on the Atlantic seaboard. Having directed The Great Dance with his brother and Touching the Dragon more recently, his heart was already connected with the harmony of nature and excitement of close encounters of the animal kind. Capturing footage of his daily visitations, Foster builds a bond of trust with the beautiful, intelligent and otherworldly creature.

This alien world is translated to screen so lovingly that it’s difficult to not be impressed by the flowing cinematography and incredible underwater footage. It’s no wonder James Cameron is fascinated with the ocean, having directed The Abyss, Titanic and currently promising sequels to Avatar that take place underwater. Gently flowing seaweed, bizarre creatures of all shapes and sizes, oxygen tanks, snorkels and specially-equipped diving craft that can transcend the ocean’s deepest chasms… it’s another world. Yet Foster’s mission was much more natural taking little more than flippers, a diving mask and snorkel. Bracing the cold water without a wet suit, having to come up for air intermittently and making himself vulnerable… the only extra was his camera.

My Octopus Teacher documentary

“Howzit.”

My Octopus Teacher isn’t simply about nature observation but actually delves into the realm of communion. While some film crews may track and study a particular creature over months, none are able to get as close and intimate as Foster with his octopus teacher. Engaging with her daily over the better part of a year, he was able to photograph some breathtakingly beautiful imagery but also learned a great deal in the process. Foster did his research, discovering a wealth of pre-existing information on the mysterious life of an octopus, but gleaned so much more about its intelligence, hunting, memory and defence mechanisms by locating its den and befriending it.

What follows is majestic footage of Cape Town’s natural beauty, Foster’s many encounters, unpacking his personal journey of healing through these regular expeditions and the great lessons he learned as a result of his friend. Foster makes himself vulnerable but keeps a distance with generic personal detail. Directors, Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, are able to extract Foster’s heartfelt account without it becoming overly sentimental. Interspersing his interview footage with pure documentary moments and moody cinematography, My Octopus Teacher maintains a steady balance of entertainment and infotainment. Foster’s soulful journey of healing intertwines with his obsessive discovery and kinship with an “alien” creature. This emotional undercurrent keeps a dramatic tension to the documentary, especially after you’re made aware of its short lifespan.

The documentary’s concept may seem bizarre at first but the treatment, sincerity and execution are emotive, fine-tuned and breathtaking. Through crisp visuals, never-before-seen nature footage, fascinating insights, heartfelt relationship and a much greater symbolic story of conservation at the heart of it all – it’s a touching and special film. While the title is a little clunky, some of the commentary is authentic to a fault and it serves as an advert for the Sea Change Project… these are minor inconveniences in the bigger picture. My Octopus Teacher has special significance for South Africans who share a coastline with the subject, serves as an inspiration to other nature lovers and deserves to be watched on the biggest screen possible for full immersion. This gentle yet stirring documentary offers a glimpse into another world with such rich insights you can’t help but be moved to positive change.

The bottom line: Breathtaking