An Octopus’s Garden (Documentary Review: “My Octopus Teacher”)

The surprising & profound bond between one man and the highly intelligent underwater creature who changed him inexplicably.

SnapShot Plot

My Octopus Teacher may be among the most emotional Nature documentaries ever filmed. In 2010, renowned South African wildlife filmmaker Craig Foster found himself at a crossroads in his personal life. Having spent years on the road and in remote destinations throughout the globe, Foster was admittedly burnt out. He felt he wasn’t running on all cylinders, both professionally and personally, realizing in particular that his young son was growing up quite removed from his father. Foster decided to retreat to his childhood home along what is known as the Cape of Storms in South Africa, a place long worshipped by surfers for its dramatic and dangerous waves. His initial thought was to explore the ‘kelp forest’ abundant in those cold waters, and his method of free diving without a wetsuit or oxygen tank began to clear his mind and build his physical stamina. It’s then that he discovered – quite by accident – the otherworldly creature of which he knew very little, who would subsume his whole attention to the point of obsession.

It was a common octopus whose intelligence and ability to make split-second decisions, pivoting from one precarious situation to the next with agility and creativity that captured Foster’s curiosity. He decided that the only way to ‘get to know’ this creature whose ancestral and primitive origins are still a thing of mystery, would be to return to her den every day in the hopes that she would see him as a new constant in her environment and that she would eventually come to trust him instead of regard him as a potential predator. What he could never expect was the real bond that formed between them, and the profound impact this relationship would come to have on his personal life, his role as a father to his young son, and indeed the very nature of his existence in the world around him.

Parting Shot

This exceptionally beautiful documentary was 10 years in the making, although the principle photography covering the narrative of Foster’s relationship with the octopus took place over approximately one year. And although spending literally every day with her in the underwater ‘forest’, he knew how precious this time would be, given the average life span of a common octopus clocking in at about one year.

What will strike the viewer immediately about My Octopus Teacher is the incredibly gorgeous diversity that is the sea life in this part of the Atlantic. Although Foster did bring his camera with him (an object which engendered great curiosity on the part of the octopus), of course he wasn’t strictly alone down there. The breathtaking cinematography was done by underwater cameraman Roger Horrocks, with a stirring original score by Kevin Smuts.

Most viewers may have seen the occasional Nature segments on the News, featuring octopuses, in which they are invariably described as naturally curious and highly intelligent. It seems we have only scratched the surface in our understanding of these exceptional creatures who predate Humans by millennia, with an innate intelligence so profound that they are likened to cats and dogs. And although Craig Foster is smart enough to avoid the pitfalls of our tendency to anthropomorphize wild animals and creatures of the deep, his feeling toward this particular creature was one of complete enchantment. And with each day visiting and observing her in her natural element, he – and by proxy, we – became at times overwhelmed by the drama and danger she faced on a daily basis.

As the year winds to a close, a profound change occurs in the octopus’s life, one that signals a transformation for both the creature itself and the human being whose experience of life in its many forms will never be the same. Who could have predicted that somewhere in those chilly waters would such a strange and wonderful connection be forged, never to be forgotten?

My Octopus Teacher is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

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