My Octopus Teacher (Review)

This stunningly filmed Netflix documentary starts out somewhat offputtingly. It seems to have no purpose beyond showing off some incredible underwater cameras and to facilitate a man’s desire to spend a year swimming in a beautiful location. Luckily, this all soon makes sense and is subverted – and legitimised – in a beautiful way.

Throughout Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s film, we follow Craig Foster as he spends a year following the life of an octopus. The documentary is narrated, in retrospect, as Foster guides us through his journey. This is one of the initially off-putting parts, as the loving way he talks about the octopus – the intimate way – feels odd. It is a strange way to hear a man talk about a creature, especially one that audience does not know. However, it soon becomes clear this is purposeful, as the retrospective narration allows the viewer to match Foster on his journey. We are hearing his sentiments from the end, and the real joy of this film is that it brings the viewer to the same position. By distancing us at the start, it is able to show real growth, which is the primary theme of this film,

My Octopus Teacher is about discovery. It is about transitioning from enthusiast to informed – to educated. This links back to the title of the film but also reflects the ways that we learn from just interacting with the world around us. The film intelligently mirrors the human and octopus narrative, which sounds bizarre but is completely thrilling. Foster learns as much about himself as he does about the octopus but the most beautiful takeaway is that there is always more to learn. This is a film about education in the most uplifting way, the idea that the act of living and observing – and experimenting – is inherently educational. The idea that education is a natural process. The idea that education happens all around us and that part of our wider understanding of the world is embracing there are things we will never understand.

This film is limited to personal understanding and genuine appreciation. It is not a text book study on an octopus, instead it is a subjective portrait of fascination and enthusiasm – of how much we can learn by just interacting with the world around us, and how awe inspiring that world is. This is a work of curiosity more than it is a work of science, and that is how it so beautifully makes the octopus an empathetic object. Importantly, it does this not through anthropomorphising it in anyway, it does it by focusing on it as a unique and fascinating thing. It is a mystery that unfurls but that keeps producing more enigmas.

This is all underwritten by stunning photography. The access we have to an aesthetically alien world is spellbinding, including footage of the sea creatures interacting with the camera when no humans are around (and nail biting chase scenes and fights, which work so well due to the emotional investment this film creates over its duration). To watch this film is to be stunned by what the sea has to offer, and by the world that exists outside of us. Ultimately, the film is a humbling and heart warming creation. It unites us through difference, a powerful lesson for our time, and genuinely charts a real personal and emotional growth. There is a smart narrative mirroring at the end between the octopus and Foster that is just beautiful, and not at all overstated. This is a wonderful documentary that far transcends its trappings, ending up as something actually poetic as well as informative.

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