Dear Readers, Netflix has been a life-saver over the past few years. When Mum died, I spent a lot of my time on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket and unable to do anything sensible. Instead, I watched the whole back catalogue of The Great British Bake-Off, Project Runway, and ten whole series of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Then, when I became a (part-time) working woman, I had a lot less time, and so it was all about an hour’s simultaneous knitting and watching after work. It’s amazing how many episodes of First in Fashion, Masterchef-The Professionals and Sugar Rush you can get through if you multitask.
But in lockdown, I find that Saturday nights are often spent huddled in front of a ‘proper’ film. I’m still not happy about going to the cinema, what with our Covid-19 numbers doubling every week, and so sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea has much to recommend it. And so it was that this week we settled in to watch a documentary about a man free-diving in the kelp forest off the coast of South Africa, and his relationship with a wild octopus.
Craig Foster is a wildlife film maker, and yet it’s clear that life has lost its meaning. He spent time with the San people of the Kalahari desert and was inspired by how they are so much part of their environment. For Foster, there’s a strong sense that he no longer wants to be a mere observer, he wants to be part of something. And it’s this that drives him to start free-diving in the freezing waters. Over the course of a year he learns to hold his breath for longer, and he makes a decision early on to eschew the comfort of a wet suit. This is a man who desperately wants to belong to something bigger than himself.
And then, he meets the octopus. When he first sees her, she is covered in shells and sea urchins, and the fish are moving curiously around her. Foster doesn’t realise that she’s an octopus until she bolts for her den. He feels an instant connection with her. How he knows that she’s a ‘she’ is one of the unanswered questions of this documentary. If you are hoping to find out a lot more about cephalopods I’m afraid that you’ve come to the wrong place because although there are lots of observational snippets about the extraordinary intelligence of the animal, the context doesn’t come out of this film.
In other words, it’s more of a Netflix film than an episode of The Natural World on the BBC – it’s about one man’s ‘journey’ to understand a wild animal, and his feelings about her. It’s about how she changes his view of the world, and of his relationship with his son.
This is not to say that Foster doesn’t map not only the geographical features of the area where the octopus lives, but all the different interactions between predators and prey. I feel that he really is immersed in the life of the kelp forest, and I could relate to the way that he wants to be part of what’s going on. The way that he decides to dive in the same small area every day speaks to me of how he wants to go deeper. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem ‘When Death Comes’:
‘I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.’
However, there is little of this complexity in the film. We see the nuanced approaches that the octopus takes to the different kinds of sea creatures that she eats: one theory as to why octopuses (which are, after all, molluscs like snails and slugs) are so intelligent is because of the varied prey that they must deal with. Most animals that are ‘intelligent’ by our standards are social animals, who are thought to have developed their large brains to deal with complex interactions, but octopuses are extremely anti-social, except when they breed.
We also see the ways that the octopus outwits her most persistent predator, the pyjama shark – the scenes of the shark hunting by scent for ‘our’ octopus are nerve-wracking. And we see the octopus playing, and the way that she curiously interacts with Foster. What is she getting out of these encounters? Foster is extremely careful to be respectful of her and to not interrupt her day to day life, and is deeply remorseful if he frightens her. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable that this short-lived animal has not only Foster but another cameraman popping in to see her on a regular basis. I admire that Foster generally doesn’t intervene to protect the octopus, which must have been very difficult, but I still wonder how things changed because he was there. We never really know what we do, because however much we want to be part of a habitat we are still big clumsy animals. I am reminded that people who live in areas of Nepal where there are tigers consider the highest respect that they can pay to the animal to be to never see it.
Still, this is a lovely film, with some stunning underwater shots. I liked Foster a lot, and admired his dogged determination. I love that his relationship with his son blossomed as a result of his experiences, and that he has founded a charity, The Seachange Project, to protect the kelp forest. It’s just that the octopus, who could have been the star, is instead just the catalyst for Foster’s dramatic rebirth. As Elle Hunt puts it in The Guardian,
‘if a documentary’s success is measured by how well it represents its subject, I’d say My Octopus Teacher falls short.’
Let me know what you think! Am I just being a curmudgeon? It wouldn’t be the first time…
And here’s the official trailer. Enjoy!