MY OCTOPUS TEACHER – Review by Diane Carson

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My Octopus Teacher presents an astonishing man-nature connection

The lovely, surprising documentary My Octopus Teacher features, as the film title accurately states, a wild octopus that educates the central character, Craig Foster. He becomes enlightened and enriched regarding the multiple ways a partnership with nature, this one octopus in particular, benefits an individual. As astonishing as it is heartwarming, Foster generously shares an incredible journey.

The only person on camera until the very end of the film, Foster speaks in interviews in his home and in voiceover narration as directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed follow Craig through one significant year. Every day, free diving without a wetsuit, Foster enters the frigid water in False Bay, a remote inlet on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula. Amidst the diverse sea life in a gorgeous kelp forest, Foster casually encounters and then repeatedly returns to watch a mature wild octopus.

Nature being nature, dangers abound, especially in the form of pyjama sharks, also known as striped catsharks, that stalk the octopus. It is quite amazing to watch the octopus invent defenses, even in a species known for its intelligence. But even more unexpected than the dazzling store of strategies (just one of which is covering herself in available shells) is the curiosity that Foster elicits and the truly marvelous, mind-boggling friendship between the octopus and Foster—and I do mean that they bond. Completely nonaggressive, Foster dives every day, soon learning where the octopus hunts and hides, and she responds.

As spellbinding, the cinematography is among the best of nature photography with years devoted to the making of this film. As praiseworthy, in nicely edited, unintrusive interviews spaced throughout the film, Foster expresses his need “to have a radical change in my life, and the only way I knew to do it was to be in this ocean with her.” As he learns from the octopus, Foster gains perspective on his own vulnerability, his family and his son. As he reports, his relationship with humans was changing as he awakens to the beauty, the charm, and the mystery of the natural world. There are, of course, tragic moments, but this documentary offers the much needed, uplifting reminder of, as Foster says, our being part of this world not just a visitor. It is as thrilling as it is beautiful and is among the best documentaries of the year.

My Octopus Teacher is available now on Netflix.

On a personal note, I must add that in my years of scuba diving, I’ve enjoyed several kelp forest dives and a few encounters with octopuses. Nothing I’ve experienced in those interactions comes close to what Foster presents here, which leaves me more in awe of his stamina (no wet suit or tank!!) and his patience. I envy his experiences that go beyond inspirational and enlightening.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.