My Octopus Teacher is available on Netflix from 7 September 2020
In many ways the octopus is a tough proposition: a soft-bodied mollusc that carries the bulk of its brain in its arms, that can render itself solid without a skeleton or liquid despite its beak, that evolved separately from nearly every other organism on Earth. That otherness is at the heart of our fascination with octopuses: can we even aspire to understand something so foreign? A new Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher, follows one man’s attempt.
Wanting to reconnect with nature after burning out with work, filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster starts freediving daily in the undersea kelp forests off Cape Town. One day he comes across an odd jumble of shells on the seafloor. What transpires to be a common octopus, hiding in plain sight. Viewers of the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 may recognise the footage. The octopus and its protective “shell suit” featured in the “Green Seas” episode, explained by David Attenborough as never-before-seen behaviour.
Foster collaborated on shooting the sequence with his friend, Blue Planet 2 cameraman Roger Horrocks. The pair have spent many years documenting South Africa’s kelp forests (more recently, as part of the Sea Change Project non-profit) and are listed as joint directors of photography on My Octopus Teacher. But that back story is omitted in favour of a close crop on Foster’s personal relationship with the octopus, and what he learns on his daily visits to her world.
Though three expert advisers are credited on the film (including renowned “octopus psychologist” Jennifer Mather, who flew from Canada to consult on the edit), Foster’s takeaways tend to be emotive, rather than scientific. Indeed his eagerness to find similarities can rather sell his subject short. When Foster suggests their “lives were mirroring each other” as the octopus regrows a leg bitten off by a shark, you wonder if she would agree.
But one can excuse My Octopus Teacher’s occasional sentimentality for its intimate, absorbing view into an alien life. Really, with a subject so captivating, narrative hardly seems important.
Though the specifics of cephalopods’ strangeness (wonderfully interrogated in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book Other Minds) are glossed over, the day-to-day study over one animal’s lifespan reveals its ordinary to be extraordinary. Before the viewer’s eyes, the octopus adapts her crab hunting strategy for lobster, evades a pyjama shark by climbing onto its back, shape-shifts to resemble seaweed and rocks, and otherwise applies her intelligence and creativity to survive.
As Foster points out, we understand so little about octopus, we tend to learn something new whenever we look. (Twelve scientific papers were published as a result of Blue Planet 2.) The familiar view of My Octopus Teacher, hard won over years of sustained observation, makes for a compelling documentary that may move you despite yourself. While we should certainly be leery of over-identifying with an animal so fundamentally other, from the octopus’ engagement with Foster, clinging to his arm even as he surfaces to breathe – it seems fair to say the fascination is mutual.
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