My Octopus Teacher (2020)
Directors: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Screenwriters: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Starring: Craig Foster, Tom Foster
Of all the genres in film and television, the one that has never lost its shine or appeal is the wildlife documentary. From ‘Tiger King’ to the David Attenborough renaissance, we simply cannot get enough, almost as if we are desperately trying to emulate a closeness to the natural world that usually evades us. My Octopus Teacher, from co-writers and directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, is the latest awards nominated film to tap into this desire, though it is far from the runaway success that the most iconic documentaries and docuseries of recent years have been.
The introduction of My Octopus Teacher makes it very clear that Craig Foster, the wildlife photographer at the heart of this film, is no ordinary man. Growing up on the coast of The Cape of Storms in South Africa, he was fortunate enough to have the rock pools and the kelp forests of The False Bay as his backyard. Such an extraordinary childhood would lead to an extraordinary career of being a wildlife filmmaker, helping to create productions such as The Great Dance: The Hunter’s Story, in which he documented the incredible lifestyle of the San Bushmen, who through their close relationships with nature are some of the world’s greatest trackers. So, in 2020, as the rest of us mortal beings settled with puppies and kittens, Craig Foster bucked the trend by forming a relationship with an octopus.
Whilst suffering from a depressive burn-out episode that was beginning to negatively impact on his family life, particularly his relationship with his son Tom, Craig chose to reinvigorate his life by returning to his childhood pastime of freediving in the Kelp Forests of False Bay. It is here where we meet him, and where we see him come across an unusual pile of rocks and shells that turns out to be a Common Octopus, apparently cleverly disguising itself. Craig’s interest is piqued, and thus he decides to free-dive in the kelp forest everyday to follow the octopus’ activities. Neither Craig nor any of us could have anticipated the close and almost intimate relationship he goes on to form with the octopus.
For a wildlife documentary, Foster’s narration is not particularly rooted in science, instead focusing mostly on his own introspection. This approach leads to a unique experience not often seen before in the realm of wildlife documentaries. Whilst it is true that there have been previous series and films that have boasted a “one on one” experience such as ‘Meerkat Manor’, in which the life of a family or of one single animal is intensely documented, it is in the ditching of a cool scientific detachment in favour of a narration fraught with emotion in which My Octopus Teacher surpasses all contenders in terms of its dramatic intensity. This alone is an incredible feat as death and danger are the bread and butter of most wildlife documentaries, so it is a genuine surprise to find yourself moved by the plight of an animal amongst the normalised brutality of nature itself. Foster’s narration indeed grips our hearts during moments of the octopus’ predation, leading to genuine elation when we see the octopus outwit its pyjama shark foe using the now famous “shell ball” defence mechanism. By the power of this emotional rollercoaster alone, My Octopus Teacher should be applauded for its freshness amongst the diversity of its many rivals and competitors.
Putting drama and emotion aside, no wildlife documentary is worth its runtime without a strong foundation in the most current science. Unfortunately, much of the science discussed within My Octopus Teacher, such as the octopus’ unique intelligence evolution, is common knowledge for most animal lovers and is easy to find in a number of short YouTube videos. Even the apparent ground-breaking shell/rock ball defence mechanism is old news: Elle Hunt’s review for New Scientist, “My Octopus Teacher review: The strange lives of cephalopods up close”, reveals that this apparently never-before-seen behaviour was previously featured in the BBC’s worldwide documentary hit ‘Blue Planet 2’, which Foster had collaborated on. This revelation, along with its omission from this film, suggests that My Octopus Teacher is more a drama than the truest form of documentary.
The fact that Craig Foster is the subject of the film whilst Ehrlich and Reed direct also places serious doubt over the film’s authenticity. Perhaps more damagingly, it calls into question the legitimacy of most wildlife documentaries, as the peculiar set-up of My Octopus Teacher unwittingly illustrates how editing can be used to present information according to any ulterior motive rather than the actual empirical truth.
Additionally, there is the worrying ramification that My Octopus Teacher is presenting the fallacy that humans can forge a close relationship with a wild animal. It can’t be denied that the process of creating this documentary has led to some positive outcomes, such as the founding of the Sea Change Project, but the continued resilience and flourishing of the exotic pet trade often flaunted on social media is the proof that humanity maybe requires the hard truth more than heart-warming animal stories like this one.
More frustrating than the lack of real scientific content is the self-indulgence of the whole affair. Not at any point is it convincing that Foster wanted to genuinely talk about his octopus teacher instead of using it as an excuse to talk about himself, and Ehrlich and Reed’s focus is centred on him rather than the titular star. Alongside the flaunting of his interference with a wild animal, the announcement of the Sea Change Project comes across as conceited, sullying it.
My Octopus Teacher isn’t without entertainment value, its stunning visuals of the underwater environment and its inhabitants likely to prove hypnotic and enchanting for fans of ocean-based documentaries, and there are things for even the cold-hearted cynics to be interested in, not least the fascination of witnessing a man unashamedly have an affair with an octopus. Ultimately however, My Octopus Teacher is utterly saccharine and without substance, a typical “Oscar Bait” film for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to get behind so it can pretend to care about the issues of the world whilst simultaneously relishing in self-indulgence.