I didn’t know what to expect from Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher. Was this a nature doc about cephalopods? If so, what’s with the ‘teacher’ part? What lessons will this octopus share?
Intrigued, I began to watch… and all became clear. My Octopus Teacher is not the traditional nature film we have (thank you Sir David Frederick Attenborough) come to expect. No, this is a beautiful story about love and the healing power of connection.
After years spent filming some of the planet’s most dangerous animals, Craig Foster tells us in the documentary that he was burned out and depressed. His relationships began to suffer - he couldn’t be the father that he wanted to be for his son, Tom. As a result, Foster decided to put his career on hold and reconnect with his roots. This took him back to the underwater world of the kelp forest off the coast of his hometown - Cape Town, South Africa.
Foster began diving once again - exploring these icy cold waters. Seeking absolute immersion in this stunning space, he ditched everything that would create a barrier. No wetsuit or scuba rig for him - despite this being one of the most predator dense places on earth and... did I mention those icy cold waters?
On one of his dives, Foster saw something strange and startling. A pile of stones and shells suddenly transformed to reveal an octopus. Drawn to this beautiful creature, he had “a crazy idea”. What if he visited her everyday?
Shot over eight years, My Octopus Teacher is the result of this crazy idea… and it is wonderful. Inspired by an octopus and her magical underwater home, Foster picked up his camera once again. All in all, he accumulated 3000 hours of footage. Each glorious underwater sequence takes your breath away.
It is fascinating to observe the octopus through Foster’s lens. She is shy and incredibly smart. She can move with balletic grace and silky ease. An expert in camouflage, she is an incredible hunter. Yes, there are probably other films that explore these creatures in more depth. Yes, there is a fair bit of anthropomorphism going on here... but it doesn't matter.
My Octopus Teacher isn't trying to be a comprehensive guide to cephalopods. Ehrlich and Reed’s film wants to reveal a truly stunning place and explore how important it is for us to be connected - to the natural world around us and also to each other.
Gradually, we see that the octopus becoming more used to Foster’s presence. In beautiful, heartwarming scenes, she begins to explore her strange visitor. It is hard to assess just what she makes of him, but it is clear from his narration alone that his feelings for her are becoming stronger by the day.
However, Foster also realises that there is a line that cannot be crossed. As much as values their interactions, he cannot interfere in her life - even when she is in extreme danger. His restraint is impressive. This didn’t, of course, stop me from coming to her defense - by, erm, shouting at my screen (which is, incidentally, why I would make a terrible nature documentarian).
Foster learns so much from his time with this octopus. She goes from being the subject of his daily ocean dives to, well, his teacher. She inspires him to face his vulnerability and to accept his need for connection. She changes his perspective and his life. It is deeply moving to witness the development of this unique friendship and the personal journey that Foster takes. We may not be able to dive into the ocean everyday, but we would do well to heed the lessons from this octopus teacher.