In the history of love stories, few have been as strange and unlikely as the one depicted in My Octopus Teacher. Netflix’s first original South African feature documentary concerns the wholly unexpected, and ostensibly transformative, affair struck between Craig Foster, a South African filmmaker, and an amphibious mollusk that he discovered in the Atlantic Ocean near the small seaside bungalow he frequented as a kid. It’s a relationship that transcends all boundaries, and serves as a quietly profound (and crazy) portrait of the bonds we share with everything in our environment—even if its cinematic depiction is sometimes far from perfect.
Debuting on the streaming service Sept. 7, My Octopus Teacher is an intimate non-fiction film that, directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, is told by and large from Foster’s first-person perspective. Foster himself shot a large portion of its underwater footage, and his interviews (intermittently on-camera, showing teary emotion) serve as the material’s narration and provide it with its narrative backbone. In short, Foster is telling his own tale, and his POV lends insight into his amazing journey, which takes place on the Western Cape of South Africa, where he spent large portions of his childhood playing in the nearby rock pools and diving in the shallow kelp forests that are home to countless varieties of aquatic life. Hypnotic and beautiful imagery of this ecosystem—where the sea folds in on itself thanks to tumultuous waves, and where fish, sharks, crabs and more wend their way through a landscape dotted with kelp, algae, and rock formations—only further draws us into this fascinating and fantastical milieu, which routinely seems like an alien land.
According to Foster, octopuses are also often thought of as extraterrestrials. Yet, “as you get closer to them, you realize that we’re very similar in a lot of ways. You’re stepping into this completely different world. Such an incredible feeling. And you feel you’re on the brink of something extraordinary. But you realize that there’s a line that can’t be crossed.” No matter Foster’s belief in maintaining detached documentary objectivity, however, My Octopus Teacher is a tale about communion between man and mollusk. Foster’s saga began when, while diving one day, he noticed an unusual piled-up collection of shells. Without warning, an octopus burst forth from that makeshift structure. Curious about what he had just witnessed, Foster endeavored to return each day to the same area, hoping to track the creature (using techniques he’d learned from expert African trackers years earlier), and to better understand it.
On the first day, Foster approached the octopus slowly and left his camera in her area, and from behind a shell “shield,” she examined the device by placing her tentacle on it. After a few weeks of mapping out (and getting a feel for) her surroundings, Foster realized that the octopus had gained a level of trust and comfort with him—a fact confirmed when, on day 26 of his endeavor, she reached out one tentacle and touched his finger before extending it further to grasp his entire hand. That jaw-dropping moment is depicted in My Octopus Teacher, as are the similarly astounding interactions that followed, culminating with the octopus not only following him around the ocean, but literally attaching itself to his chest in an embrace, allowing him to pet it as it nuzzles against his body.
It’s the sort of thing one wouldn’t quite believe if they didn’t see it. In those moments, My Octopus Teacher captures a majestic sense of how inquisitiveness, empathy and compassion can give birth to connections between disparate beings. Moreover, via additional underwater footage of Foster shot by cinematographer Roger Horrocks (along with Ehrlich and Dave Aenme), the film conveys the depth and breadth of this stunning seascape and its many inhabitants as they come into contact with the octopus, be it the crabs and lobsters that it hunts (in the process exhibiting a shrewd and cunning strategic mind), or the pyjama sharks that hunt it, leading to a grisly encounter that leaves the octopus short a tentacle.
Where the doc falters is in its refusal to convey anything meaningful about Foster’s life, which he (and the film) claim was forever altered by this quasi-romance. In early passages, Foster talks about how he underwent two years of “absolute hell” that left him worn out, sleepless and sick, and his family in pain. Yet no concrete details about these struggles are imparted. As with later, cursory interludes about his desire to foster closeness with his son (whom he eventually swims with, exploring this maritime wonderland), Foster’s reasons for feeling personally and professionally adrift remain hopelessly vague. Consequently, any impression of how the octopus really changed Foster’s emotional, psychological or familial circumstances proves sketchy and generic at best.
Compounding that problem is that directors Ehrlich and Reed’s topside sequences are full of staged shots (occasionally in slow motion) of Foster walking along the beach and posing, in silhouette, at daybreak and sunset on the edge of the water. The preponderance of manicured, dramatically recreated action in My Octopus Teacher leaves it feeling artificial, if not downright corny and manipulative. Adding to the general clunky, hand-holding quality of the proceedings is Kevin Smuts’ score, which veers from scary to soaring to playful in time with the dark/light visual compositions, and in a manner that lets you know precisely how you’re supposed to feel at a given moment. There’s a difference between enhancing a mood and beating you over the head with it, and too often, it’s the latter that dominates.
Nonetheless, when it’s not prodding you to tremble with anxiousness or weep with joy, My Octopus Teacher is an idiosyncratic account of adversity, perseverance, and finding liberation, contentment and self-awareness by exiting your comfort zone and interfacing with creatures that are wholly dissimilar from yourself. It’s a study of engagement as the greatest way to achieve fulfillment, whether on an individual or social scale. And most of all, it’s a love affair so weird and astonishing that no amount of intrusive filmmaking gestures can quite diminish its wacko power.