'My Octopus Teacher': Film Review

My Octopus Teacher
Courtesy of Netflix
A rewardingly intimate deep dive.

Shot in the waters off the South African coast, this Netflix documentary chronicles one man's life-changing relationship with a wild cephalopod.

If you're not a marine biologist and you haven't yet seen My Octopus Teacher, chances are good that you have no strong feelings about eight-armed cephalopods. You might associate their tentacles with horror movies or appetizer plates — but likely not such stirring matters as interspecies communication or physical renewal after dire injury, to name two of the indelible turning points in this winningly unorthodox nature film.

No one can speak for the doc's title character, but there's no question that for Craig Foster, the documentarian and devoted diver who shares center stage with her, this is a love story. His interest in an ordinary octopus grows into a healthy obsession, and the resulting film, from directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, covers nearly her entire life span of less than a year and a half, months in the watery wilds that can be meditative as well as action-packed.

My Octopus Teacher is not the first documentary to plunge us into the otherworldly flora and fauna of Earth's oceans — a number of films from MacGillivray Freeman and Imax have done so in magnificent fashion. But it is the first to chronicle a single sea creature's story from such a personal, openhearted perspective, revealing not just emotional connections but animal behaviors previously unknown to scientists.

The story unfolds with deceptive simplicity and startling beauty in a patch of sea off South Africa's Western Cape that's protected by a thick kelp forest, and therefore relatively calm. Its waters are, however, bracingly cold, dipping below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and Foster goes in sans wetsuit or scuba gear. He wants a direct experience with the environment, and aims to be as nonintrusive as possible among the fish and mollusks. At the outset of his adventure, the invigorating cold is also a lifeline for him, a way back to a sense of purpose. "The cold upgrades the brain," he tells us.

In voiceover and onscreen interviews, Foster explains that he returned to diving, a childhood joy, at a point when he felt depleted by work and unsure how to go on. The urgency to heal himself was heightened by his desire to be a good father to his school-age son, Tom (who eventually becomes a diver in his own right, as well as providing the film's drone footage). For a few brief moments in its early going, My Octopus Teacher threatens to veer into the dreaded territory of New Age self-help. But Foster is so likably low-key and humble a screen presence, and his point of view is so interested in the other, that any such fears are quickly dispelled.

It turns out that his curiosity is matched by that of the octopus he visits in his daily dives, and she inspires Foster, who had explored animal tracking and shamanic cultures of the Kalahari in films he made with his brother, to pick up his camera again. In turn, his interactions with the octopus inspire a friend of his, cinematographer Roger Horrocks, to join him in the surf with his camera.

My Octopus Teacher is a dazzling technical achievement, especially when you consider that helmers Ehrlich and Reed and editor Dan Schwalm were faced with 3,000 hours of footage, shot over a period of eight years that began long before Foster encountered the title animal. Beyond the lengthy editing process, a team of postproduction whizzes had to make footage from a wide array of cameras visually cohesive. There isn't a telltale seam in the immersive proceedings, not a crack in the exquisite aquatic palette or the underwater light.

Unlike the cinematically daring Gunda, which removes the human voice from its narrative, to profound effect, Teacher is very much about interaction between humans and other species, and its positive potential. There's a touch of Spielbergian human-alien connection in the story it tells, a sense of wonder and mystery enhanced by Kevin Smuts' score. It's never saccharine or simplistic, though, and it is endlessly surprising. We're along for the ride as Foster watches his cephalopod friend hunting crabs and lobster, being hunted by sharks, and indulging in a comic gambol with a school of fish. Her talent for camouflage and survival are impressive, her intelligence astounding, her trust in Foster deeply moving.

If nothing else, Ehrlich and Reed's documentary is another reminder of how little we know about the creatures who share this planet with us, and how much we assume in the hierarchy of species we've devised. You might think you're watching just another movie about animals until, about 20 minutes in, a tentacle unwinds and reaches out to grasp Foster's hand. Much like him, you might feel the tides turn, and you might also fall in love.

Distributor: Netflix
Production companies: Off the Fence, The Sea Change Project
Directors: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Screenwriters: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Producer: Craig Foster
Executive producer: Ellen Windemuth
Director of photography: Roger Horrocks
Editors: Pippa Ehrlich, Dan Schwalm
Composer: Kevin Smuts
Sound designer: Barry Donnelly
Underwater photography: Craig Foster
Topside photography: Warren Smart
Aerial photography: Tom Foster

86 minutes