Craig Foster is a burned out documentary film maker who becomes the subject of someone else’s documentary when he replenishes himself by diving in a South African kelp forest.
Free diving without even a wet suit, Foster cultivates a sense of belonging below the water, feels connected to it in some primal way that only deepens when he happens upon a little octopus, Octopus vulgaris to be specific, living in a small den. Foster is struck by his intimate proximity to her every day life, and begins to visit her regularly, for months. Slowly he gains her trust, and is able to capture extraordinary footage of her hunting, being hunted, playing with fish, checking out his camera, constructing camouflage and more.
Yes, Foster is perhaps guilty of anthropomorphizing his subject, but there’s a long and impressive history of film makers and wild animals getting cozy while making a movie, and at least the octopus isn’t going to eat him. And in some circles, Foster may even get bonus points for standing by and letting his dear friend’s arm get severed. Plus, technically this isn’t Foster’s film – Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed have come on board to write and direct.
Quibbles and qualms aside, what we’ve got here is a stunningly beautiful little film of a creature we might all like to make friends. My Octopus Teacher is a terrible title but I do get its meaning: the ocean has much to teach us. The natural world has much to teach us. So often we rush right by these incredible things that are happening all around us and the miracle here is not the octopus’s ability to completely regenerate a new arm, but Foster’s ability to slow down enough to see it happen.
We’ve got the much easier task of simply selecting it for our next Netflix movie night. It’s a heck of a lot easer than trying to wrestle on a damp swimsuit every day for months, and juggle different lenses for underwater photography while pyjama sharks (those nasty bottom-dwelling predators with a deceptively cute name) threaten your friends.
You can learn about Octopus vulgaris in any book or website about marine biology: how it manages to chomp through shellfish, how it changes colour to blend in with its surroundings, how it uses sea shells to shield itself from enemies, how they only reproduce once, laying tens of thousands of eggs, and by the time they hatch, she dies. You can read about all of these interesting facts but you’ll never understand them with the depth you will gain from having watched this wonderful documentary, a tailor-made lesson plan on an amazing, ink-squirting cephalopod.