Stunningly filmed by Roger Horrocks (director of photography) and smoothly edited by Pippa Ehrlich and Dan Schwalm with overall direction credited to Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher tells the story of dedicated diver Craig Foster (who also produced the film) and his inter-specie love relation with an eight-armed cephalopod, otherwise known as an octopus.
With spectacular imagery we get an up close look of the south Atlantic Ocean off the Western Cape of South Africa. Though it’s Earth, the planet we all share, the underwater wilds on display here takes us to a different world of flora, fauna, fish, and creatures that seem more likely to be inventions of science fiction than actual science and true-life biology.
While the story is as basic a formula as boy meets girl (in this version the girl is an octopus), it’s the spectacle that is awe inspiring. The wild and raw beauty of the ocean depths are a colorful and unique visual treat, and for Craig Foster, who literally skin dives in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit with no wetsuit or oxygen tank (holding his breath for remarkable intervals between resurfacing for air), it’s a sensual experience as well. Foster wants to be as close to this under-the-sea forest as possible, unhindered by equipment and protective gear as is possible, suggesting: “The cold upgrades the brain.”
In over 3,000 hours of film footage, narrowed to an 86-minute movie and dramatically enhanced by Kevin Smuts’s original musical score, we meet Foster’s teenage son, Tom, who is also a skilled diver and credited as the aerial photographer (done by drone) and, of course, the title character — the octopus — who initially appears as a shy, hesitant being but eventually develops an affectionate relationship with Foster, stroking his human arms and apparently hugging him in a display of an eight-armed embrace that is gentle and heartwarming, even though these invertebrates are indeed cold blooded.
We are given a glimpse of adventure and danger as we witness a shark pursue and attack the octopus, severing, chewing and swallowing one of its eight appendages (which, like a lizard’s tail grows back). And while Foster does tend to anthropomorphize this most physically dexterous of creatures and chameleon-like of all sea life, it is nonetheless a notable achievement to have “captured” the story of and relationship to this being whose lifespan is a mere 1,095 days with its final 365 days spent in a state of decline and senility.
My Octopus Teacher
Distributor: NetflixProduction 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