The engaging and now Oscar-nominated documentary “My Octopus Teacher” is a beautiful, moving, and reflective experience. It’s also a little crazy and doesn’t do much to hide its aggressive tugs on your heartstrings. This Netflix Original from co-directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed has garnered a lot of praise since its September release on the streaming giant’s platform. It’s easy to see why.
The film is more or less a reflection of a middle-aged man named Craig Foster. He tells the story of his encounter and unlikely ‘friendship’ with a small octopus just off the coast in West Cape, South Africa. For over 325 straight days, Craig would visit a small underwater kelp forest in an area called “The Cape of Storms”. There lived a female common octopus (Octopus Vulgaris if you go by its funky binomial name). Over the course of his daily visits an unlikely yet amazing bond forms, one that genuinely transforms this man’s life.
We don’t get much in terms of backstory, only that Craig grew up in the ocean but left as an adult to pursue documentary filmmaking. During a film shoot in the Central Kalahari Desert he meets some indigenous master trackers intimately in-tune with nature in a way he once was. 18 years pass and Craig sits at a crossroads, losing his faith in himself and watching his relationship with his family suffer. So he heads back to West Cape, to the place where he felt so connected to the bigger world as a boy.
Craig begins his dives into the cold waters with no wetsuit and no oxygen tank – just swim trunks, flippers, snorkel, and a camera. There he meets the octopus who slowly becomes comfortable with his presence. Before long the fear and apprehension vanishes and the documentary turns into a surreal underwater buddy movie of sorts. Some of the sweetest images emerge as the two grow closer and the octopus shows affection perhaps never seen from an animal known for being anti-social.
At the same time the waters are full of predators, namely swarming Pajama Sharks. Craig’s firm belief in the natural order keeps him from intervening once his octopus friend finds herself in peril. It’s an admirable position but one that raises some fascinating moral-ish questions, especially during the scenes where Craig sits back and films the octopus’ fight for survival. Would it hurt if a bigger human predator ran off the smaller predator? Does attracting the octopus with his presence contribute to the creature’s vulnerability? Does Craig owe it to his underwater friend to protect her if she’s out of her safe place to see him?
One thing you’ll immediately notice is that “My Octopus Teacher” features some truly exquisite ocean photography. The film is masterfully shot by DP Roger Horrocks, a nature doc veteran whose camera creates a vivid underwater tapestry of sea-life that encompasses so much more that just one man and a mollusc. Equally transporting is the elegant score by documentary composer Kevin Smuts. It’s hard not to be swept away by the look and sounds that really emphasize the subtle majesty of the setting and the emotional undercurrent to the story.
“My Octopus Teacher” clocks in at just a little over 80 minutes but it packs a lot of heart and goodwill into that short running time. As I said, the whole thing is a little crazy and it would be hard to believe if this weren’t a documented true story. Strangeness aside, there’s also a lot of sincerity and personal feeling behind Craig’s story. You genuinely believe this was a life-changing experience for this man and the film’s final scenes with Craig and his son really bring that truth home. “My Octopus Teacher” is now streaming on Netflix.
VERDICT – 4 STARS