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Oscars 2021: My Octopus Teacher defies wildlife documentary constructs to become an impossibly immersive romance

Poulomi Das
·7-min read

"I hadn't been a person that was overly sentimental towards animals before," says documentary filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster midway through My Octopus Teacher. It is an odd admission to hear from the man who is the co-creator and subject of one of the most transformative pieces of wildlife documentary filmmaking of 2020 (the other being Victor Kosakovskiy's black-and-white spectacle Gunda).

Yet, it is also an aptly sincere confession of a collective human blindspot €" Foster is not the only one who has been historically apathetic toward animals or the ecosystems that house them.

Indeed, My Octopus Teacher is structured largely as an impossibly immersive documentary about the vicissitudes of marine life. But it also lends itself to being a blueprint that implies perhaps it is time we as a species €" just like Foster €" re-examine our ambivalence.

The premise of My Octopus Teacher veers close to the ingredients at the centre of every unorthodox love story: a chance encounter, a tortured man, and intense feelings of longing scored to rousing piano notes. The storytelling also mirrors the very foundation of most romantic comedies €" a connection forged between two souls in the unlikeliest of circumstances saves a broken soul from drowning, acting as his lifeboat and turning him into a better man ("All I could do at the time is just think of her," Foster says at one point like an obsessed lover). The only difference is that the saviour here is a manic pixie octopus.

Still, casting the documentary as a proverbial love-story is a reductive interpretation of what is essentially an achievement in marine storytelling. My Octopus Teacher is foremost, a visual sensory experience unlike no other, a documentary that somehow captures lightning in a bottle by being both an extraordinary record of the untapped wonders of nature as well expanding the limits of the already tapped human condition.

Culled from 10 years of footage, My Octopus Teacher, co-directed by Pippa Eherilch and James Reed, chronicles Foster's year-long expedition of diving in a cold underwater kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. When Foster started diving, it was his escape: he was burnt out, a life of documenting snapping the life out of him; actively disinterested in fatherhood and completely abandoning domestic duties. At the time, Foster decided that to garner a new perspective towards his own life, his eyes needed to have something new to witness. The ocean stared back at him as the obvious answer.

It was during one of his dives that Foster stumbled upon the octopus, the primary protagonist. Witnessing the strange cephalopod ignited dormant feelings in him: curiosity, empathy, affection, but more crucially, a deep commitment to the repetition of living. And so Foster started going back underwater to meet the octopus everyday (he addresses her as "she" throughout the documentary, resisting from giving her a nickname) for a whole year. In the process, he (along with Roger Horrocks, also credited for the cinematography) paints an intimate portrait of the marine ecosystem and simultaneously mounts a riveting character study of a creature that has historically been considered foreign, in part owing to it evolving differently than any other organism on Earth.

Throughout the 85-minute-long runtime of the film, riotous, mesmerizing colours fill up the screen as Foster (he swims without a wet-suit or an oxygen tank so as to remove any barrier between the animal and him) plumbs through the depth of the ocean developing a relationship with the eight-limbed mollusc. The footage is informative and absorbing: there is the primer on marine life (we learn that the shape-shifting mollusc carries the bulk of its brain in its arms, and is more active at night) but Foster's sincere narration allows the viewer the luxury of making sense of the octopus as a fully rounded being.

We watch as he admires her ability to strategise and think on the ground while hunting for food, is overcome with emotion when a shark attacks her and dismembers her arm, and practically cheers for her when she manages to outwit another shark. The scene-stealing sequence that documents how she escapes the clutches of the shark is easily the pièce de résistance of the documentary. It is shot, edited, and scored like a chase sequence in a thriller. The camera thoroughly tracks the exchange from the moment the shark tries to prey on her to the daring escape, needling tension alternating between drawing the viewer away from the action, and then placing them right in the thick of it without warning.

Yet for much of My Octopus Teacher, Foster seems content to silently observe her go about the business of living even though she has only one year left to live. In that sense, she infuses his escapism project with singular purpose. If the documentary works as an attempt to understand the marine world, it is primarily because it is able to translate the feeling of being awestruck at witnessing something "much more extreme than our maddest science fiction."

The vérité-style documentary manages that primarily by eschewing the traditional structure of nature documentaries that treat wildlife as objects and invariably put a distance between animals and the humans capturing them on camera. The distance in turn, affords them the illusion of holding a certain measure of power over any wildlife species by virtue of holding the camera in their hands. The achievement of My Octopus Teacher lies in measuring that distance, and then erasing it.

By refusing to other the octopus, it treats it as a subject of the story, asking: how can humans hold any power over organisms and ecosystems they hardly know?

The generosity of the filmmaking in My Octopus Teacher is equalled by the unfettered reception it received. When Netflix released the documentary in September 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, it hardly dominated attention spans. The documentary had not done the rounds of any film festivals, a mark of cachet for any piece of filmmaking, and there were hardly any reviews making a case for its indispensability.

Instead, it was discovered organically by viewers across the world who seemed unanimously moved by it more so because of how the themes hit close home during the pandemic. Burnout, the inability to feel any sort of joy in the mundanities of daily life, and the urgency of wanting to rediscover a zest for life were worries on everyone's mind as we stared at an uncertain future while being confined indoors indefinitely. The great outdoors was everything that we collectively craved for. My Octopus Teacher fulfilled that longing, or a simulation of it, by transporting millions of viewers to an exotic world we were physically barred from travelling to at the time.

But I suspect the reason My Octopus Teacher caught on like a fashion trend being propagated by the Kardashians is because the film ultimately acts as a reminder that it is always possible to start over, especially when it is impossible. That is the right kind of balm we need after a year that has snatched away best laid plans along with any certainty of how our future would look like.

When the film started streaming on Netflix, no one would have predicted that it would end up being an awards contender to reckon with. A year later, it is the most award-garlanded documentary of the year, having recently picked up honours at the Critics Choice Awards and a BAFTA. In about a week, it could also go down in history as an Oscar winner. That its Academy win is almost guaranteed falls in line with the theory My Octopus Teacher posits: the true meaning of life might just be 70 percent made up of water.

My Octopus Teacher is streaming on Netflix. It won the Best Documentary Feature award at Oscars 2021.

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