Photo | Netflix
“My Octopus Teacher” is a soothing aquatic documentary about Craig Foster, a South African filmmaker who, burnt out and world-weary, takes to the sea, free diving every day in a frigid kelp forest in an attempt to recapture a feeling of connection to nature. He notices an octopus and forms a bond with her over time, earning her trust and learning her ways. And, yes, this whole undertaking is exactly as earnest as it sounds.
An octopus is an undoubtedly fascinating and intelligent animal, and Foster’s time with this one was certainly well spent. With not even an oxygen tank between them — this guy can really hold his breath — the octopus grows accustomed to Foster’s presence and eventually touches him with her amazing tentacles.
In many ways, this is a traditional wildlife documentary. We spend most of our viewing time in the beautiful, exotic depths of the kelp forest. It is, quite literally, immersive, gorgeous and deeply soothing. Forget your own troubles as you invest yourself completely in whether the unnamed octopus will escape the hungry little pyjama sharks. Wonder aloud to the consternation of your fellow viewers, when “Octopus’s Garden” is going to play. (Never!)
Spending so much time on a deep dive into not just a single species but a single animal is very rewarding. She really is amazing. The things she does to protect herself, like covering herself in shells and rolling into a ball, are incredible, and like Craig Foster, we marvel at her intelligence and ingenuity.
What distinguishes this documentary from a more traditional nature show is the “my” part of “My Octopus Teacher.” In addition to the mysteries of the kelp forest, we get a lot of Foster’s kitchen table, and I found him less fascinating than his octopus teacher. I’m not sure he shares my appraisal, however. When the film begins, Foster lets us know he is tired and burned out so he returns to the frigid waters where he spent his carefree childhood. But for some reason, this didn’t stick for me as a terribly compelling framework for the story.
Once we get in the water and in the company of the octopus, none of that matters. I just couldn’t buy into the Foster narrative; the poor guy just rubbed me the wrong way. I think it was the way he spoke of wanting to be a better father to his son, yet when he tossed in some son footage, I didn’t really buy it. Foster put himself at the center of the story and it was all about how his son and his beloved octopus related to him.
The octopus didn’t sign up to be the savior of this rather self-important filmmaker, fatigued in an unspecified way from a dream job as a celebrated documentarian. She tolerates him, and he is as thrilled by this as he should be, but the fact that he feels better about himself after their time together was not high on my list of concerns. His house was awesome though and the scenery truly beautiful. I’m quite sure Foster found the connection meaningful, but the whole metaphor of his personal journey into the wild was a bit strained for me.
Nevertheless, when I wasn’t begrudging the filmmaker’s passion for the octopus, “My Octopus Teacher” is a beautiful, informative and meditative film experience that will leave you feeling like you have journeyed far away. Cape Point in South Africa is as thrillingly exotic a location as you could ever hope for, and stunningly beautiful. But the lessons taught by the octopus teacher could inspire you to connect with something closer to home and, in a time when we are often confined to our own backyards, to slow down and appreciate what even the most familiar corner of nature has to teach us. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have a chat with my daughter’s hamster.
“My Octopus Teacher” is streaming on Netflix.
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