My Octopus Teacher review: A beautiful dive into sentimental waters
James R | On 21, Apr 2021
Director: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Cast: Craig Foster
Where to watch My Octopus Teacher online in the UK: Netflix UK
“I wasn’t a person who was overly sentimental towards animals before,” says Craig Foster, a conservationist and filmmaker from South Africa. My Octopus Teacher is the story of how one cephalopod changed that for ever.
When we first meet Foster, he’s burnt out and struggling to find a renewed passion for life and connection with something beyond his professional existence – and he finds it by free-diving daily off the coast of Cape Town. While doing so, he spies an octopus living in the kelp forests nearby, and becomes fascinated by the animal’s behaviour and apparent mutual interest. It’s telling that Foster, who has been filming his own underwater encounters, hands the helm over to debut director Pippa Ehrlich – part of the film’s fascinating form is a result of them trying to work out how to frame such a personal tale. In the end, interviews with Foster conducted by documentarian James Reed provide us with a voiceover that guides us through the footage, without simply relying on talking head interviews.
That means a boat-load of anthropomorphism, as we’re led through Foster’s relationship with the octopus by the heartstring, from admiring its ability to avoid sharks to excitedly gazing at it smartly hunting its own prey. When Foster talks about his own journey, he relates it through the parallel experiences of the octopus, even though there isn’t much they have in common at all – one moment when the octopus is injured feels like a particular stretch.
Yet that earnest connection with nature on a deep level is at the very core of My Octopus Teacher – it’s a movie that celebrates the importance of respecting and caring for the natural world, even if Foster’s commentary does at some points seem like it carries an intimate charge of a different nature. If you’re looking for a film that examines the pedagogic relationship at its centre, this is not the film. But if you’re looking for a film to remind you how beautiful nature can be, My Octopus Teacher is certainly up there. From Foster’s own camerawork – in the most striking sequences, he places a camera some distance away and leaves it to record him and the octopus interacting – to the gorgeous cinematography of Roger Horrocks, the whole thing is lavishly, vividly shot. It’s no coincidence that a segment involving the octopus using shells to camouflage itself made it into the BBC’s Planet Earth series, perhaps the benchmark for all environmental documentaries.
The result is a nature film that’s more fluid than most pieces of factual filmmaking, opting for emotion over science and focusing on the pupil over the so-called teacher. But that unabashed sentimentality is what gives this bizarre film its engagingly unusual tone. If you weren’t overly emotional about animals before, this could well be the film to change that.
My Octopus Teacher is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.