Home Theatre: My Octopus Teacher - Between man and mollusc
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's My Octopus Teacher, streaming on Netflix
Craig Foster tells us early in his Netflix documentary that he was in a dark place mentally and chose to take up freediving in the ocean at the tip of Africa as an escape. Now, this past weekend, I too felt the need for an escape, if only briefly, from this world of ours and its darkness. Normally, this is where I'd turn to a movie or a show. But that didn't seem quite removed enough given most of those would be populated by humans again. That's when I chanced upon My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. The underwater world is as alien as it gets without actually leaving the planet. An hour-and-a-half long visit to that incredible place seemed like just the respite I needed. What I hadn't counted on was such a moving tale of a mollusc and a man.
My Octopus Teacher is unlike other nature documentaries. It is the personal story of Foster and the octopus he followed for a year (around 80 per cent of the octopus' life). What began as a random idea to keep visiting this one creature daily, grew into an obsession and ended up affecting the way he interacted with the people in his life, and even how he lived. What's striking is that despite this, Foster keeps clear of anthropomorphising the octopus — a trap even regular wildlife documentaries often fall prey to. He does use female pronouns to describe the octopus, but does not give her a name. He is quite careful, when describing the behaviour of the animal, to not attribute any human characteristics to her. He openly admits to wondering what the octopus could possibly gain from interacting with him, and concludes that it must have been "some strange octopus level of joy."
It was also a pleasant surprise to find that the film avoids any overt messaging. Given the title of the documentary and the trailer, I was a wee bit worried that there would be some eye-roll-worthy enumeration of the lessons learnt from the octopus. But there's almost none of that. It's all subtext, which is a very wise choice as it allows us to completely immerse ourselves in this wonderful world.
And what a world it is! Filled with the most extraordinary landscapes and creatures - with this amazing, almost impossibly intelligent mollusc at its centre. We get to see her slowly grow accustomed to Foster and indulge her curiosity about this new creature in her space. The scene where she makes first contact with him is wondrous. As is seeing her trust in him reach a point where she rides to the surface on his hand. There are, of course, the stunning sequences of the octopus changing her appearance to match those of her surroundings. Foster explains how this solitary creature has learned to match colour, texture, pattern, skin to deceive both prey and predator. An octopus, he tells us, is essentially a snail that has evolved to lose its shell. This gives them the advantage of an almost liquid body that can be poured through even a small crevice, but it leaves them vulnerable to attack.
We see a couple of these attacks from the descriptively-named pyjama sharks. Though his instinct is to scare away the sharks and protect the octopus, Foster avoids interfering in the workings of the marine ecosystem (he does try to feed her later when she is injured but says it didn't really help). We also see the octopus hunting her own prey and how she strategises while doing so. These are thrilling sequences that bring us to the edge of our seats. However, my favourite scene is the one where the octopus plays with a school of dream fish. A lovely sequence made poignant by what follows.
Another interesting aspect of My Octopus Teacher is the way the talking heads of Foster are handled. We hear him speak but what we see are shots of him taken presumably just before he starts speaking, when he's thinking back to the time that he's describing. This allows us a glimpse into his emotions before he controls them to talk. It's a powerful device that gets us to empathise because Foster is not your usual nature documentary narrator, who can summon up engagement with voice and dramatic modulation. When he speaks, he is quite matter-of-fact.
It is precisely because he is so plain-spoken, however, that it really hits us hard when his voice breaks when the inevitable end arrives. It is heartbreaking to hear him admit that he misses her. I really did not expect to tear up over an octopus, but so it was.
My Octopus Teacher ends on a hopeful note though. Foster tells us his son took an interest in diving and marine life, and he was able to pass on what he had learned about this amazing world to him. His son, he says, developed a "strong sense of himself, an incredible confidence, but the most important thing, a gentleness." That last truly is key and much-needed in today's world. Foster talks about how the octopus helped him realise that he was not just a visitor, but a part of this world. He mentions that sensing how vulnerable the lives of these wild animals are makes us realise how vulnerable all our lives are on this planet (something we've all had a taste of lately). And it made me think: it's time we took an active interest in protecting our wild ecosystems and being more gentle — towards these wild creatures, and each other too.