A Wild Education

'My Octopus Teacher' shows us that learning can come from unexpected sources, eight-armed or otherwise, if we keep our minds open.

My Octopus Teacher
Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed
Netflix, 2020, 85 minutes

Ice cold temperatures. Fearsome swells. Thick kelp forests. Otherworldly creatures. This is the underwater realm into which Craig Foster transports us in My Octopus Teacher.

The storyline of the film, which is perhaps best described as part-biography and part-nature documentary, is straightforward. Foster, a successful filmmaker, is burned out and depressed. He no longer wishes to pick up his camera. So instead, he heads for the sea off the coast of his native South Africa, swimming among the kelp in often treacherous-looking waters with little more than a swimsuit, goggles, and snorkel. He soon discovers a special patch of kelp forest, visited by sea creatures big and small, and is inspired to once again pick up his camera. Before long, he comes upon — you guessed it — an octopus.

Right off the bat, the octopus displays several behaviors that pique Foster’s interest, including encasing its body with dozens of shells and rocks, and subsequently wrapping itself in kelp. Foster is hooked. “Sometimes you just get a feeling and you know there’s something to this creature that is very unusual,” he says. “There’s something to learn here. There’s something special about her. And then I had this crazy idea — what happens if I just went every day?”

So he did.

Returning to the same patch of kelp forest day after day with his camera, Foster begins to forge a relationship with the octopus, who is at first timid, but soon begins to warm up to him. In one particularly heartwarming scene, the octopus reaches out and touches his face. In another, she grips his hand. As she becomes comfortable with Foster, he is able to follow her as she jets, swims, and even walks around her ocean home. He becomes a naturalist in the process, tracking her behaviors and tracing her interactions with all the other species around her. Filming all the while, his single-minded obsession with the mollusk results in stunning footage of her creativity and intelligence, from using an abalone shell as a shield, to playing with fish, to escaping a predator by jumping on its back.

Foster’s transformation during this process of documentation is moving. While regaining a sense of passion and purpose, he also starts to see the world differently. “I hadn’t been a person that was overly sentimental towards animals before,” he says, after a difficult-to-watch scene involving the octopus and a pyjama shark. “I realized I was changing. She was teaching me to be sensitized to the other, especially wild creatures.”

poster for movie

Despite this sensitization, and the film’s focus on the natural world, My Octopus Teacher doesn’t carry an overt “Save the Oceans” message. But it doesn’t need to. The intimate look at one octopus’s life, and the ecosystem she is connected to, is more than enough to instill a deep ache about all that’s at stake when it comes to our treatment of our blue planet.

The film does, however touch indirectly on some challenging conservation questions, including how our interactions with wild animals may impact their behaviors or their environments. During early visits, noticing that the octopus was clearly affected by his presence, Foster would sometimes just leave his camera to record. Later, in the aforementioned scene with the shark, one can hardly help but wonder if Foster’s presence somehow set events in motion. (To his credit, Foster shares this same concern.) At another point, when he finds the octopus dull and weak as she recovers from an injury, he feeds her. “I was overcome by my feelings,” he says of the decision. Any qualms about the choice aside, it’s easy to understand why he would be.

Above all else, My Octopus Teacher conveys a sense of just how much we might all learn from the creatures in our backyards — even if our backyard isn’t the Cape of Good Hope. A sense that, at a time when our resilience is being tested on a daily basis, we might find not only strength and comfort by spending more time under the waves or in the forest, but also learn something about ourselves. That there could be an unexpected teacher out there for us too, eight-armed or otherwise, if we found the time and patience to search for her.

Most of us probably can’t dedicate a year to the venture. But who’s to say we couldn’t gain something even from a day?

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