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The shallow depths of ‘My Octopus Teacher’

| Thursday, April 15, 2021

Elaine Park | The Observer

There are few documentaries as enticing and personal as “My Octopus Teacher.” Being Netflix’s contender for the Academy Awards’ Documentary Feature this year, it breaks the mold of most documentaries by jumping into the cold water without holding your hand. What begins as a simple story of friendship evolves into an incredible experience of self-discovery through the miracle of nature. It is one of Netflix’s quieter originals, never reaching the absurdity of “Behind the Curve,” or the schlock of “Tiger King,” because it instead structures the development on filmmaker Craig Foster’s own reflection of the events. Everything is told through him with his own words, framing the life of an octopus as a companionship rather than an experiment.

The unknown corners of the ocean feel brighter after watching this film, even though by the end of it you know that it is just the tip of an endless iceberg. The vastness of the sea astounds me, and the reality of what one man found in just a tiny pocket of a beach being enough to change his life forever proves how mysterious nature can be. His testimony makes me want to put on a pair of flippers and dive into the waves for the rest of my life. The coast of West Africa looks like it comes from another planet as the camera soars above the rocky cliffs, before delving into the kelp forest under the crashing waves. Sharks and jellyfish swarm the screen, giving the viewer further admiration as Craig Foster casually swims alongside them. The setting that is explored is itself enough to be awestruck, and each encounter with the octopus builds upon that framework seamlessly.

Unfortunately, to any Netflix user not interested in sea creatures or long shots of waves in slow motion, this film might not be for you. For a deep dive into the complexities of the natural world, the story is very straight forward. It both acts as a comfortable watch, and a brief preview into what feels like something greater, yet has no agency of going anywhere anytime soon. I often put on nature documentaries for background visuals while I do my homework, and for some reason this specific film feels like it was made for that purpose. The visuals are striking and dynamic as they are choreographed by Craig Foster’s reflective voice, to the point where it calms you into a semi-conscious trance. The pacing is strangely methodical, not really straining to catch your attention with its groundbreaking discoveries. It is as relaxed about its runtime as a film can be. Serving as a soothing watch that educates you with emotional punches, the film gives you no excuse to click on it if you don’t have any personal connection to the sea.

I thoroughly enjoyed “My Octopus Teacher.” It stands apart from other nature documentaries as it puts a man’s story in the spotlight of how he sees the world, rather than facts and objective encounters of the wild. Putting a person inside the natural world, and seeing how he can interact with it, inspired something within me to try it myself, which I think more films should do. It utilizes the same wonder as Steve Irwin and Jack Hanna by literally filming hands-on encounters of the wild.

Being nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, it utilizes its form in a unique way, but I don’t expect it to win. It is the only documentary film nominated that I have heard about, but popularity rarely holds any weight in the voting process. However, if it does win, I will be pleasantly surprised for Craig Foster and his octopus friend. Hopefully, this film inspires people to find friends in the most dangerous and unknown places, because after a year of being trapped inside, we all could use a hug from a friend with eight limbs.

Title: “My Octopus Teacher”

Starring: Craig Foster

Director: Pippa Ehrlich

Genre: Nature Documentary

If you like: “Planet Earth,” “Our Planet,” “Finding Nemo”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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