EXCLUSIVE | Swati Thiyagarajan on the Oscar Award-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher
The Chennai-born environmental journalist and production manager of My Octopus Teacher talks about the Academy Award-winning documentary
Environmental filmmaker Craig Foster and his team scarcely imagined that their documentary, My Octopus Teacher, would travel around the world, let alone win the highest honours at BAFTA and the Oscars. Craig, who was supposedly going through a rough patch in his life, found hope in the form of an octopus in the Great African Sea Forest. His wife, and production manager of My Octopus Teacher, Swati Thiyagarajan, who was born and raised in Chennai before moving to Capetown, shares that his daily encounters with the creature got him back on track, made him feel closer to his family once again, and now, has helped win an Academy Award.
Swati believes that acquisition of the film by Netflix convinced them that they were onto something. “We realised then that our documentary has global appeal. And yet, we were not prepared for what was to come,” she says, and attributes the popularity of the film to word-of-mouth publicity. “Our email servers crashed during the first four days of the premiere. We had messages popping up every second.” The purpose was always to touch the lives of people, she shares. “All the messages we got were deeply personal. Those suffering from depression told us that the film helped them heal. Even children were writing long emotional messages to us. It affirmed our belief that honest content cuts across all cultural and linguistic barriers.”
Excerpts from the conversation:
At what point do you think that this personal story turned into a universal story of inspiration?
It all started just with Craig. He was going through issues and he felt nature was the only source that could heal him. Craig was diving every single day without the idea of filming anything. He was going through a tough time as his previous four films had caused him to burn out. He sunk into the ecosystem for practice, for meditation and therapy. During the process, he couldn't help but feel so inspired by nature and the octopus friend he met, that he started filming it. Even then, it was still a personal exercise. As he is a cinematographer himself, he knew where to place the camera. At one point, he realised that the octopus was not an ordinary one and felt that the story he shared with it must be said on a larger scale. He then brought his friend, Roger Horrocks, for additional cinematography. That is really how it all began.
He didn't want a massive crew and all the excess equipment as he believes that it disturbs the ecosystem. He wanted to keep the film intimate. So, it was just him, Roger, and the director, Pippa Ehrlich, underwater.
Craig has directed all of his previous films, except this one.
He wanted a director who could be a bit emotionally distant from the project. As he knew he was going to be featured throughout, he felt it would be better to have someone else at the helm.
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Usually, he makes his films with his brother, Damon. But this time, Damon had to opt-out due to personal commitments. Our long-time friend and associate Pippa Ehrlich came onboard as the director, and was accompanied by James Reed, the co-director, who did a brilliant job creating a solid narrative for the story.
Being an environmental journalist and enthusiast yourself, what were your contributions to this film?
I was able to understand why Craig chose to dive every single day and explore underwater. When I am unhappy or exhausted, I also find peace through nature. We had a common point there, and I was able to understand what was going on in his mind.
Even before we started to see this as a film, he would come back every day after his dive and share the footage and photographs of what he saw and discuss them with me. We often have conversations on how nature makes us feel and evolve as humans. From all of our conversations, all of the ideas we often shared, I believe that Craig got the source material for the film. I was in the whole process from start to finish and offered inputs about the environmental aspect of this film.
The story of My Octopus Teacher goes through a typical hero's journey. Were you fortunate that everything fell into place?
Yes, we were highly fortunate. But we would have gone ahead and made an impactful environmental film, even if Craig hadn't met this particularly interesting Octopus. You can't structure a documentary really; you just have to go with a flow and find your story.
And yes, I do believe that all successful documentaries follow the template of the hero's journey, which encourages the audience to root for the protagonist on screen. Yesteryear films like Free Solo and Cove were about a rock climber and an investigative journalist, respectively, but they too had the same core emotion. They were all about journeys. Be it a documentary or fiction, all human journeys are extraordinary. Ultimately, it is the hook of the story that matters.
It took an ocean and a year's time for Craig to get over his difficult time. Do you think a film can change a person's life as deeply?
Absolutely. Everything that happens around us is propelled because of a story. We are hard-wired to be drawn towards stories. If the stories are accompanied by arresting visuals, the impact becomes even bigger. Be it capitalism or political ideologies, everything needs to be accompanied by a strong story to convince the people. When two-minute-long ads can make people buy products, can’t a two-hour-long film change a life?