Directors: James Reed, Pippa Ehrlich
Cast: Craig Foster
Streaming on: Netflix
Think of a typical wildlife documentary. We observe creatures in their natural habitat. On the ground, in the ocean. A voiceover narrates their environment. Their little moments. Their behavioral quirks and dashes of desperation. A camera captures them with great skill and instinct, but such documentaries rely on the erasal of this relationship between the camera and the animal. It should never seem like the animals know they’re being watched. It should never look like the humans share an invisible bond with them. It’s the kind of storytelling that thrives on a distance – psychological, physical – between the storyteller and the story. It’s respectful to let nature take its course and embrace an educative tone. But it’s also impersonal to eliminate a sense of perspective. When we see their world, the feeling is then visual. The anonymity is breathtaking. The awe is generic: Oh, so this is where movies get their imagination from? Is the Great Beyond – Outer Space and its extraterrestrial beings – actually based on the Great Beneath: Oceans and their tender monsters?
In My Octopus Teacher, a burnt-out documentary maker follows a common octopus. He observes the creature in her natural habitat: a cold underwater Kelp forest at the tip of South Africa. His voice narrates their environment. Their little moments. Their unique chemistry and dashes of fate. Cameras capture the two of them with great skill and instinct, but cameras also liberate them: My Octopus Teacher is the rare “nature” documentary that relies on this relationship between the camera and the invertebrate. The octopus knows that she is being watched. The human, Craig Foster, forms a deep and visible bond with her. It’s the kind of storytelling that thrives on the storyteller becoming the story. Foster is respectful enough to let nature take its course, while also letting the experience educate – and transform – him. It’s his perspective that personalizes the film: over their year together, the wildlife filmmaker rediscovers his zest for the wild and his life. When we see their world, the feeling is then intimate. Their chemistry is, literally, breathtaking: loving her, for the free-diving human, means holding his breath. The awe is specific: Oh, so this is where fairytales come from? Are 30 percent of the Earth’s stories – the ones on land – actually derived from 70 percent of the Earth’s stories: the ones in water?
My Octopus Teacher is the rare “nature” documentary that relies on this relationship between the camera and the invertebrate. The octopus knows that she is being watched
I want to believe that My Octopus Teacher is a unique love story. That it’s an impossibly romantic film about the shape of water: a vulnerable human having an illicit tryst with an exotic creature. But that’s a reductive gaze. It’s precisely what the documentary seems to suggest, too: Love is not an emotion, it’s a time. Romance is not just a platonic feeling, it’s also a second chance. Some of us find soulmates, others like Craig Foster find a moment – an attachment – that helps them relocate broken fragments of their own souls.
My Octopus Teacher opens with Foster’s life, his childhood passion for the marine world, his filmmaking career that tore him away from the past. He spends so long capturing the remoteness of Earth that his own remote runs out of batteries. He is spent – an absent father to his adolescent son, a wrecked workaholic in dire need of a reset – when he says: I remember the day I first saw her. He speaks of “her,” and their fateful meeting off the Cape Town coast, with childlike wonder. She ignites his curiosity. His eyes sparkle, his gentle voice quivers, as if he were describing a first date. Soon, you’d think he was floating on cloud nine. Soon, you’d think she was head over tentacles. The phrases of infatuation flow: The boundaries between her and I dissolve. I could only think of her day and night. Does she dream? What does she dream of? Is she getting anything out of this relationship? She’s quite a messy eater. The score – all piano and strings – evoke a waltz of permanence. Maybe he might have to lose his physical life, by drowning perhaps, so that they can make a spiritual life together.
But reality is rarely so dramatic. The title of the film emerges. It’s a love story, yes, but one that features the most fundamental form of love. Some of us discover the potency of love, others like Foster discover the versatility of romance – the young romance of companionship but also the old romance of parenthood. By observing her and shadowing her, by learning about her world yet standing back to see her fight a crisis, Foster unlocks the secret of being a father again. He sees her survive and stutter, play and trust, and recognizes the independence of her time. He remembers his son, he learns how to communicate in his language; he studies the art of searching for someone without making them feel lost. The phrases of surrogate care flow: She was teaching me to become sensitized to the other. Our lives were mirroring each other. She’s got no mother or father, she’s alone, nobody teaches her, she has to learn to be deceptive on her own.
When a horrified Foster watches a pyjama shark devour one of her arms, he shudders less like a heartbroken lover and more like a father unable to protect his child. When her arm regenerates, there is relief but also pride in his voice. One can sense that he’s learnt something about his son here: My boy has the strength to heal even if I let nature take its course with him. He can rise no matter how much my absence crippled him. We learn a lot about their unsaid history – where Foster is perhaps crippled with guilt for not nurturing his son enough – and we also get a soothing and hopeful glimpse into their future.
From the vantage point of the film, it looks like a parent teaching a child to trust. And a child teaching a parent how to break loose rather than break free
A common octopus lives for approximately a year. It only dawns upon us, during a haunting goodbye, that maybe she was the one who’d have to physically die so that her human can earn his own life back. In a way, she chooses to perish so that the void she leaves – and the wisdom she shed – might urge him to reinvest in the growth of his son. The narrative is almost too good to be true, but also too true to be good. In the end, it’s always a tortured man who – through destiny, devices and demise – must come of age. It’s always the obsessive artist who needs to be nudged back in the right direction. Yet, it’s to the credit of the directors (Pippa Elrich and James Reed) that this age-old trope wears the mask of an inverted wildlife documentary. It assumes the face of natural evolution: a female does not live and die for a man, an animal lives and dies despite human eyes.
One of the most bewitching scenes of the documentary – and of cinema in 2020 – involves a leap of faith. After accidentally frightening her away with a camera, Foster sets out to look for her. Will she ever trust him again? Has he blown their honeymoon phase? He starts to think like an octopus, and after a lot of mapping and aqua-sleuthing, Foster finds her den. She is happy to see him. She “waves”. The reunion culminates in a magical moment. She is, as usual, glued to his arm. Any sudden movement and she might shoot away. Just as Foster starts to inch back up towards the surface to breathe, he expects her to leave.
But she doesn’t. She stays on him, her suckers inhaling his skin, even as he gently drifts up. From the vantage point of his head-fitted camera, it looks like a romantic #FollowMeTo image: one partner is leading the other to new destinations. But from the vantage point of the film, it looks like a parent teaching a child to trust. And a child teaching a parent how to break loose rather than break free. After all, the romance of outer space is inextricably linked to the rearing of inner space.