My Octopus Teacher


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

My Octopus Teacher
"The film has been very well edited to construct a coherent narrative which mixes wonder, drama and action."

Of all the intelligent species on Earth, octopuses are the most different from humans. Probably the only ones to have risen from phylum Mollusca, they live in a different environment, move and manipulate objects in different ways, and even see the world differently (through much better structured eyes). They are solitary animals coming together only to mate, so the human subject of this film expresses surprise that one would take an interest in getting to know him - yet in recent years more and more examples have been emerging to show that it's common for solitary animals to enjoy friendship and play as long as they get the chance to do so with someone who is not a threat, a potential meal or a member of their own species.

What makes octopuses fascinating to us may very well be what makes us fascinating to them. As the title suggests, the octopus in this film is very much the one in command of this relationship, not least because it takes place on her territory, in a small kelp forest off the southern tip of South Africa. There she observes human swimmer Craig Foster for some time before tentatively beginning to approach him. In a place where no other humans spend significant amounts of time in the water, he will have been a novelty to her, his focused yet not obviously motivated behaviour attracting curiosity. Once she establishes that he's not out to harm her, their chance meetings morph into regular, deliberate encounters, captured here in exquisite detail.

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Anyone familiar with octopuses will be aware, going into this, that they live short lives - a major limiting factor on their ability to develop their intelligence or learn how to better manipulate their environment. Newcomers to the subject should be aware of this because they're likely to find themselves investing heavily in this individual as Foster does, and there is no possibility of a conventional happy ending. That said, there's a good deal of joy to experience along the way, and the take-away that Foster has been profoundly changed as a result of their time together.

Whilst the octopus quickly finds her bearings with Foster, he remains confused about her, at one moment expressing awe at the number of calculations she has to be able to make rapidly in order to pull off emergency manoeuvres, at another claiming that she might be as smart as a dog. Whilst she makes no secret of her delight at his visit, he convinces himself that he has to abide by something like Star Trek's prime Directive, apropos of nothing, and tortures himself when their emotional bond compels him to take her food after she's injured. Throughout the film he imagines himself as a scientist without realising that he is inevitably part of the experiment, and that being in that situation does not automatically mean that it's compromised. There is certainly a good deal of value that can be learned from this footage.

Most viewers, however, will not be there for the science but for the magic of this underwater world and the love which, despite Foster's best efforts, is present in the central relationship. The film has been very well edited to construct a coherent narrative which mixes wonder, drama and action. The octopus' world is not a secure one, with sharks patrolling nearby but she knows how to look after herself and when they are not around she benefits from an abundance of food. This leaves her with time to play and to assuage her curiosity about all sorts of things. Watching her solve problems is a much more effective way to learn about this environment than merely gliding through it whilst listening to soothing narration.

Although not everything Foster has to say should be taken at face value, this is an engaging film which viewers will want to watch again and again.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2021
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A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world.

Director: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed

Writer: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed

Starring: Craig Foster

Year: 2020

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: South Africa


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