By MICHAEL YOUNG
In My Octopus Teacher there is a commitment to patience, discipline, and involvement, even though the time frame is just short of a full year. And yet, to at least one of the two lead characters in this film—the octopus—that year represents most of her entire life.
If this sounds a bit strange—talking about examining the life of a single octopus as if it were a central character in a feature film—well, that is exactly what separates this movie from all the other wildlife documentaries. It is, in a very real sense, a biography of a particular octopus and the story of her mind-boggling relationship with a human being.
That human being is filmmaker Craig Foster, not a stranger to the exotic life of Africa, in documenting the lives of bushmen of the Kalahari. In the midst of a family and professional crisis, he decided to take some substantial downtime. Living, literally, on the edge of the Cape of Storms in South Africa, he began to spend time diving, without tanks or wetsuit, in the cold waters of his back yard. After many weeks of acclimating to the cold and learning to hold his breath longer, he encountered an octopus. Mind you, there is nothing particularly unique about this octopus, but he finds it and then repeatedly encounters it in his dives.
With an intense feeling of curiosity, he senses that there might be something to learn from this animal and so, in a mix of commitment and maybe desperation, he decides that he will visit this animal every single day just to see what this animal’s life is like. Initially with nothing better to do, he actually succeeds in this “long-view” effort, diving into the kelp forest every day for almost a year, finding his newfound friend, and just being with her for as long as he can hold his breath. What he learns about the animal—and himself—is nothing short of miraculous.
What distinguishes this documentary from the usual “National Geographic Special?” The storyteller is neither a scientist or conservationist. We aren’t watching the animals behave from a safe distance in a kind of scientific detachment. In the first place, this is the story of just a single animal—not a species, not a family. By spending such a huge amount of time with this single animal, Craig Foster discovers things about her that would escape typical observation. The flashes of intelligence shown when she hops on the back of a shark; the sensitivity when she strokes Craig’s hand with an arm; the pain and sorrow when she loses one of her own tentacle arms.
The implicit argument behind this kind of documentary is that a wild animal is so much more than the subject of scientific observation. We are conditioned to think that only humans experience true emotions. But Craig’s experience with the octopus suggests that our smug exceptionalism might well be the result of inattention and superficial observation. Taking Craig’s long view with the octopus leads to understanding well beyond the documented science project, and gives nature a more rightful place in the hierarchy of not just intelligence, but also feeling.
And, toward the end, in a series of events that you have to really see to believe, the film brings back the lesson to the human side. Foster says, “What she taught me is to feel… that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.” He made a commitment to the octopus and was rewarded. He used that understanding to reconnect with his own estranged son.
This is a terrific film using a technique to explore nature that I’ve never seen before. I also understand that I might not know everything there is to know about animals called octopuses. But I think I know how one of them felt about a human called Craig Foster. (4.5 Stars)