Professionally burnt out, documentary director and cinematographer Craig Foster dives into the Atlantic near his coastal hometown in South Africa and leaves the terrestrial world behind as he descends into the kelp forest. The underwater world had been his childhood refuge, and he’s returned in search of a meditative space, a place where he can reconnect with himself and with the world around him.
A freediver, Foster conducts his underwater exploration without equipment, holding his breath for extended lengths of time. His tolerance to cold waters allows him to navigate the kelp forest without a wet suit. He’s unencumbered and unsheathed in a realm of nature that feels like home to him. Going in without a wet suit heightens his sense of merging with the ocean, and relying on his honed ability to hold his breath frees him further.
Foster does bring his camera, though. He captures the moment in which he encounters a young octopus. The next time he visits, he finds her again. The time after that, too. She’s consistently, reliably there, and Foster is fascinated. He commits to visiting her world every day to spend time with her, which he does for an entire year.
In meeting the octopus, Foster found inspiration to work with his camera again. He wanted to observe and get to know her. He captured hundreds more moments with her.
What came of it was a precious bond and this stunningly beautiful documentary: My Octopus Teacher.
These days, my own sense of being in love with life is heightened, too, and the slightest moments move me to tears of gratitude… and always, in any medium, I cry while taking in storytelling involving animals. Quite naturally, then, several tissues were required as I watched this film.
My Octopus Teacher is an emotional drawing-in of a film, unlike any other nature documentary I’ve seen. To witness a bond of trust grow between this enchanting underwater being and Craig Foster is to know even more profoundly the sentience and innocence of animals. To move with Foster through the kelp forest with its glorious population of sea creatures is to realize on a more personal level, somehow, that there’s an unfathomably vast world in the oceans and seas, a richer world than our own.
When Foster first visits her den, the octopus is tentative, but the intellectual curiosity ingrained in her prevails over her trepidation. A relationship begins to form. After a while, she’s confident that he won’t hurt her, and she goes about her daily routine unworried by his presence as he observes. We’re then able to discover her personality: she’s captivating in her expressiveness, and she’s exceedingly smart. She’s intrepid, affectionate, and playful. Innovative by nature, she displays creative survival skills that leave Foster – and we viewers – in awe. She’s well-informed, as each of her many suction cups has an intelligence, her suction cups like little brains lining her eight arms.
At one point in the film, we’re privy to a moment between Foster and the octopus. We can see how very small and vulnerable she is, and the extent to which she’s come to trust and love him.
My Octopus Teacher is a soothing meditation of a film with shimmering facets of drama, thriller, and horror. All at once, it’s gentle and sweet and exhilarating and fraught with the harrowing realities of octopus life.
Foster fell in love with the little octopus, and so did I, along with probably everyone who’s watched the film. I was rather a mess by the end of it, but in the best of ways.
My Octopus Teacher is a nature documentary that tells a powerfully human story. Foster’s goal was to reconnect with himself and with the world, and the octopus helped him with that. She drew him out of his own den in which he’d been stuck. She left him with invaluable insight and epiphanies that translated seamlessly into his relationships with others, and with the world as a whole. The bond that she cultivated with him strengthened his bond with his son.
Please don’t miss this film. Its gorgeous cinematography and mellow narration make for a healing balm that we all can use, and its story imparts lessons that we all can learn. Bravo to Craig Foster, the filmmakers and producers, Netflix, and to the little octopus, herself, for bringing us My Octopus Teacher.
[Correction: I’d originally written “tentacles” where I was referring to suction cups. I realized it when I re-read the post just now. Middle-of-the-night-oversight corrected.]