“A lot of people say that an octopus is like an alien. But the strange thing is, as you get closer to them, you realize we’re very similar in a lot of ways.”
When the Oscar nominations were announced for Best Documentary, “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) was included amongst five nominees. Last night, it won the Award for Best Documentary at the Producers Guild Awards. I had heard quite a lot about Pippa Ehlrich and James Reed’s film, and was urged to see it by many a discerning cinephile — including a thirteen year-old friend who told me it was one of his favorite movies of last year. I had procrastinated getting to it because my friend Mike DeGruy, whom we lost in 2012, had done a spellbinding work called “The Octopus Show” that had some extraordinary footage, rarely if ever seen before, of octopus species. He also gave a phenomenal TED talk called “Hooked by an Octopus” in 2010, which you can see for yourself on YouTube. Coincidentally it was him, one of my biggest champions, who eighteen years ago urged me to take the reins of SBIFF. Furthermore, he helped me immensely those early years, going as far as curating a nature film series and starting one of our signature educational programs, now named after him, “Mike’s FieldTrip to the Movies.” I’ve never met anybody more knowledgeable and passionate about the natural world than him, and he was a good storyteller to boot.
He would have loved “My Octopus Teacher.“ I don’t know if he’d ever met its subject, Craig Foster, a South African documentary filmmaker whose personal story of connecting with the underwater realm through his meeting with an octopus brings on a spiritual awakening in him, but the two of them certainly would have a lot in common.
This is the second documentary I’ve seen recently – the other was Viktor Kossakovsky’s groundbreaking “Gunda” (2020) – that carries the profound message that we’re sharing this earth with other animals and that we shouldn’t behave as if we’re the center of the universe. Without hitting you over the head, “My Octopus Teacher” has a conservation narrative that is stealthily entrenched in it, and does not resort to lecturing or bringing up polarizing environmental issues.
“You’re stepping into this completely different world,” Foster says. “Such an incredible feeling. And you feel you’re on the brink of something extraordinary.” He comfortably leads us in this intimate and yet epic journey near his home in Western Cape, South Africa. He tells us that after a few years making films he felt burnt out and depressed. He put his career on hold. “Your great purpose in life is now in pieces,” he confesses. This was also taking a toll on his family for he felt he couldn’t be a good father to his young son, Tom.
He recalls that while making his documentary “The Great Dance,” he’d met master trackers in the Kalahari who commune with nature and are able to observe the wind, the raindrops and their surroundings to find food. So in 2010 he began a daily dive in a kelp forest at a remote location in False Bay. He would do this in freezing water without a wet suit or scuba gear. “The cold upgrades the brain because you’re getting this flood of chemicals every time you immerse in that cold water,” he narrates. “Your whole body comes alive.” He’d also learnt to hold his breath for long periods. “I want to be more like an amphibious animal. Instinctively I knew not to wear a wetsuit,” he declares. He followed this routine for eight years, with a camera on hand amassing 3000 hours of footage.
One day he comes across a strong formation on the shallow water. It’s a ball-like figure encrusted with seashells. “The fish even seemed to be confused,” he says. It was a young female octopus who eventually allows him to get close to her, and the two develop a bond. It unfolds like a love story, something as heartwarming and wondrous as Eliott and the extra terrestrial. As a matter of fact, the first time that a tentacle reaches out to Foster and its suction cups connect with his hand will give goosebumps.
Through their friendship that lasts a year (cephalopods only live eighteen months) we are immersed in an underwater three-dimensional forest. And there are plenty of adventures, including two action sequences involving a shiver of relentless pyjama sharks that are like blind “Beetlejuice” fishes.
The photography is wondrous, and it is all life-affirming. I guarantee you will shed a tear, and it makes for a terrific family film.
Foster: “She was teaching me to become sensitive to the other. Especially wild creatures.”
Available to stream on Netflix
Written and Directed by James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich
Featuring Craig Foster
Craig Foster on “My Octopus Teacher”
A few years ago, South African documentary filmmaker Craig Foster felt burnt out from years of working on arduous nature films. Needing a reset, he returned to the underwater kelp forests off the southwest tip of Cape Town. “My earliest memories, my deepest and most powerful memories were of this incredible coast and diving in what I call ‘my magical childhood forest,’ ” Foster says. “It is one of the greatest ecosystems on this planet.” Foster vowed to dive — without a wetsuit or oxygen tank — every day for a year into the chilly waters near where he grew up. The ocean was sometimes as cold as 46 degrees, but his body gradually adapted. “Day after day, I slowly started to get my energy back and realized that there was this whole new way of looking at this underwater forest. And I started to come alive again,” he says. The waters were teeming with sea creatures, but Foster says his encounters with one particular octopus stood out. Over a series of dives, the octopus began coming out of her den to hunt or explore while Foster watched. “That’s when I realized: This animal trusts me. She no longer sees me as a threat, and her fear changes to curiosity,” he says. “That’s when the real excitement comes and you think, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m being let into the secret world of this wild animal’ — and that’s when you feel on fire.” Foster chronicles his underwater encounters in the kelp forest in the new Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, and the book, “Sea Change.” (npr.org)
Co-Director Pippa Ehrlich on the Making of “My Octopus Teacher”
Co-director Pippa Ehrlich tells Jesse Mulligan Niki Caro’s 2002 movie “Whale Rider” was used as a reference point when she discussed the direction the movie should take with Foster. “That was one of the first things I showed him. There are themes in there about the power of women and what our gender roles are, but more than that it’s this idea of this ancient connection that human beings have with the wild and finding ways of exploring and expressing that, because very few people in the modern world make time in the day so connect with nature.” Foster had forced himself back into the water, battling swell and coldness to reach the kelp forest he wanted to explore. It became a special place he would be magnetically drawn back to every morning to observe the octopus, which gradually showed signs of inquisitiveness, trust and connection. Ehrlich got involved in the project about three-and-a-half years ago after she approached Foster over interest in his work and how he had learned to adapt his body to the freezing-cold water temperatures. They dived together for six months as she learned his techniques. During this time he revealed a desire to share his story. “He’d figured out that he was ready and that this was the film he wanted to make,” she says. Foster had shot footage over the best part of a year, every day and for most of the octopus’ short life span. It was her job to help piece it all together as a documentary. “It took about three months just to go through the material and figure out what our story was and how we were going to tell it.” Ehrlich was a natural choice to direct the film. A marine science and conservation journalist familiar with how a story like Foster’s could be presented to a mass audience, she had already made a number of short films.
But she had another advantage over other potential suitors. “Something a little more basic was the fact that he wanted to make this film with no wet suits and no scuba gear and I was pretty much the only person in his orbit at that point who could stay in the water for as long as he could without a wet suit.” Ehrlich never imagined the project would end up a massive hit on Netflix. For her it was a labour of love, a project she felt compelled to take up. “Craig sent me a treatment and I was sitting at my desk in my very cushy NGO job and I read this treatment and I just started crying. I felt that if something resonated with me so deeply, how could I say no.” The kelp forest was a magical adventure for her and diving with Craig without oxygen or a wet suit had been an eye opener. She was hooked from the start. “From that very first dive with Craig I realised that I was missing 90 percent of what was going on. “It was like putting on a pair of magical goggles and I saw animals that I didn’t know existed, I saw behaviours that I never imagined were possible and we managed to approach animals and get close to them in a way that I’ve never dreamed of.” The physiological response of the body to the cold, the sudden rush of endorphins and sense of vigour, added to the experience. One of the behaviours that blow her away was the first time she saw the octopus trust Foster enough to touch his hand. “It speaks to this idea that an octopus’ life is all about the conflict between fear and curiosity and that was a theme we worked on through the film, the fact that they are afraid and they’re very, very vulnerable, that they need to be careful, but they’re also highly intelligent and they like to be entertained.” Fosters’ daily visits to its lair and the familiarity of having a safe creature around offered the octopus entertainment, she says. Enrilich says the connection between human and octopus is striking too because humans evolved from the sea into the most neurologically complex land-based mammals on Earth. Octopuses went the opposite evolutionary direction, remaining invertebrates and the most neurologically complex creatures of the oceans. “We’re on opposite ends of the evolutionary tree, but somehow there seem to be things we can relate to with one another,” she says.
Foster, during his interview in the documentary, says the octopus taught him the most profound lessons on what it means to be human and part of the natural order. “She taught him all sorts of things that he was desperately trying to understand… about acceptance and trust, about where we fit in the natural world and I think one of the biggest things that he learnt was that there are really no ‘others’, because every creature that lives on that Earth is relatable to us on some level. “Every single animal, and probably every single plant, that we share are world with has a very complex life, full of drama and excitement. They are having an experience, just like we are.” There is no overt conservation message or theme in the movie, but the need to avert total ecological catastrophe is felt through what the film reveals – the intrinsic value of our connections with nature, she says. In losing species, we in effect lose a part of ourselves. But there had been heated debate among the production team about this approach. “I worried if we did go down the conventional road of ‘this is what’s happening to our planet’ and ‘this is why human beings need to change’ then that message would end up overwhelming that sense of awe, wonder and connection… I feel the approach we took was the right one.” She says it is a film that invites us to reassess our relationship with the natural world and re-establish a sense of reverence and reciprocity. “As our lives have sped up and we’ve moved further and further away from that we have lost our connection and it’s had very, very bad impacts on us and the animals and plants we share this planet with.” (rnz.co.nz)
Craig Foster on “My Octopus Teacher”
Foster began this daily diving regimen as a way of dealing with a depression that had left him raw and disconnected. “I was struggling. My only way to heal felt like I needed to be in the ocean, my go-to happy place as a child.” Immersing himself in this underwater world has calmed his mind, he says. Over the years other animals have reached out to make contact, including otters, whales, cuttlefish and even sharks. “They have chosen to come to me and make that contact, showing a moment of trust and vulnerability,” he says. “Every time it’s breathtaking and healing.” But nothing has compared to his “once-in-a-lifetime” bond with the octopus, he says. Foster says the greatest lesson she taught him is that humans are part of the natural world around us, and not simply visitors. “Your own role and place in the natural world is singularly the most precious gift we have been given.” (cnn.com)
About Subject Craig Foster
Craig Foster is a co-founder of the Sea Change Trust and one of the world’s leading natural history filmmakers. He has dedicated himself to learning the secrets of the Great African Seaforest – the inshore kelp habitat at the South West tip of Africa, his underwater home. Together with Ross he has written a book on their transformative experiences exploring the little-known coastline and shallow seas of the Cape Peninsula. His film My Octopus Teacher follows the story of his year with a wild octopus, at the same time honouring his pact to dive 365 times a year. Through this regular intensive immersion, he has uncovered a plethora of new animal behaviours and species, one of the species is a shrimp which has been named after him: Heteromysis Fosteri. He has founded the Sea Change Project to share his love of nature with others. (seachangeproject.com)
About Co-Writer and Director Pippa Ehrlich
Pippa spent much of her childhood in Johannesburg, dreaming of nature. Some of her earliest memories are of wading into the sea at Boulders Beach in Simonstown where she learned to swim. As an adult, Pippa set out to explore nature and our relationship with it as humans. Her role as conservation journalist for Save Our Seas Foundation brought her back to the shores of False Bay where she met Ross and Craig and experienced her first taste of Sea Change magic. Her growing love for the Great African Seaforest draws her into these cool waters on an almost daily basis where she goes in search of stories that deepen her connection to this incredible wilderness and its weird and wonderful inhabitants. Pippa edited the “Sea Change Book” and co-directed the Sea Change feature documentary film “My Octopus Teacher.” (seachangeproject.com)
About Co-Writer and Director James Reed
James Reed wrote and directed “Rise of The Warrior Apes,” produced with Keo Films for DNI, which was awarded Best Animal Behavior at Jackson Hole, Best Natural History Film at New York and is nominated for five Panda awards at Wildscreen. Previously James directed the independently made film “Jago: A Life Underwater,” winner of the Panda award for Cinematography, Best Documentary at RTS and Best in Festival at Jackson Hole. He has finally made his money back on “Jago” after it was picked up by the BBC, Smithsonian, ARTE and Netflix. James currently has a range of projects in development from natural history and adventure to sports and drama. (wildscreenfestival.sched.com) Reed most recently co-directed “My Octopus Teacher” with Pippa Ehrlich which was released in 2020.