I’ve never been a documentary fan, probably in part because I refuse to watch talking heads, an odd cultural behavior we were first conditioned to in elementary school. And that was certainly a painfully boring feature of documentaries in the old days. However, things are changing, and I have found some films that were quite transformative of late; Fantastic Fungi, for example. Today I present My Octopus Teacher, a Netflix distributed film, so not available to all, as is the case for Fantastic Fungi.
Teacher gets my endorsement for a few reasons. It’s well produced; the narrative is sensitive, the photography impressive enough. Not like I know anything about underwater photography except that it’s challenging. It’s a tale about a man who fell in love with an octopus, basically. It’s not easy to patch together a personal experience retrospectively, of course; the film came 10 years after the fact. Though documentaries are meant to give us the impression of being “factual”, they are of course acted, edited, and otherwise produced. The audience must suspend disbelief, for the narrative is recreated. If it’s not properly done I get kicked out of the theater and give up. Overdramatizing through dialogue or soundtrack is one way to get me feeling suspicious, for example.
But Teacher isn’t overdramatized. There’s enough impressive material, simply and humbly stated, to keep me interested. So it doesn’t drag through too much commentary, nor take on the kidvid feel of a bombastic nature film that keeps one wondering what happened post production. The soundtrack (Kevin Smuts) is evocative but likewise tasteful, not overbearing. There is some talking head, or rather talking bust; Craig Foster, producer and star. However, Foster’s monologues are somehow not just words, though the words are indeed well chosen, casual but concise. There’s something of his person that comes across, a kind of heart-centered intelligence.
And in fact the film is about heart connection, between a man and an octopus. Foster was floundering (haha) creatively, and he starts free diving in the sea he grew up near, off the tip of South Africa. After he’s made friends with the cold and adopts a kelp forest spot, he starts observing and filming a common octopus, Octopus vulgaris. Octopuses are famous for their extraordinary intelligence, including a wide range of defensive strategies. It’s a harsh judge indeed that remains aloof to the little octopus lady’s creative talents and skills.
But then I may have a leg up (not on the octopus obviously) (probably the last bad pun) in being impressed, for I have loved octopuses since I first saw one. That was as a child, in the aquarium in Boston. There was a large one boxed in plexiglass, an otherworldly, blood red, pulsing velvet heart. I stood gazing at it and had a mind meld, or rather, a heart meld. I felt so strongly about this animal, and knew it wanted to get out. Who wouldn’t? This was the first of such melds I would have in my life, and I never forgot its message; the disrespect and entitlement that causes my society to box animals for entertainment, often under the heading of education, creates unnecessary suffering.
The message of the film is similar, I suppose. The take home doesn’t come til the end, appropriately so. You can find the take home quoted on the film’s website, Sea Change Project. My favorite image from the film is of Foster cupping the octopus next to his big bare chest, gently stroking her head. The film offers a redemptive character arc; Foster taught by Gaia in the form of a wee sea creature, to a life of more compassion and connectedness. The arc is described in an improved relationship with his son.
I love that nature documentaries increasingly include a theme of personal development. It’s great when Nature assists us in dropping our hubris. For me, though, Foster’s extraordinary connection to the small but amazing creature was the important feature. Human immersion in the astounding excellence of Gaia’s creations shines a message of redemption that my Euro-Western society can’t hear too much. Maybe we can get back to the garden. Even if our skin is not beyond the pale (woops, did it again).
Teacher also nods in respect and admiration to the indigenous San people, Foster’s tracking teachers. On the Sea Change website, Foster’s wife, Swati Thiyagarijan (associate producer), gives her side of the story, including an octopus stealing away with her wedding ring.
Oh darn, I guess the take home is on the trailer. Well, it’s way more impactful after the film… Happy viewing!