A man grows in his own life after befriending an octopus sounds like the plot of an animated film, but My Octopus Teacher from documentarians Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, cuts through any doubts with the utmost earnestness and dazzling underwater photography.
Craig Foster is the aforementioned man in this story. Foster is a South African documentary director himself, but had been burned out by his work. His solution to escape his malaise was to return an area near Cape Town called False Bay, a place he had spent time as a child. He began free-diving in a cold underwater kelp forest and observing the strange world.
While diving, Foster encounters a strange object covered in shells, which turns out to be an octopus, which eventually retreats to its den. Every day for the next year, Foster visited the forest and documented his interactions with the octopus, which grew more friendly as the weeks and months progressed.
The entire premise does not feel real. It sounds like a fake movie from 30 Rock, but Ehrlich, Reed and Foster never flinch at the conceit and treat this with the same amount of dignity and respect that Foster takes to his adopted environment. The idea of a connection to an octopus feels ridiculous until you see the interaction. Foster provides an interview that complements the underwater adventures that back up everything being seen.
The octopus itself develops an acquired personality, from the body adaptations to the way it preys on food. The conflict arises when we are introduced to pyjama sharks that inhabit the forest. Foster’s immersion gives him a rare insight into how the entire forest interacts and where the food chain stops. As a documentarian, his desire to protect the octopus is tempered by his reverence for nature and the passive view of his camera lens.
The connection to the octopus and Foster grows as does the connection for the audience. The film becomes a heartwarming message about the preservation of nature and maintaining the system it has evolved into. All the while, Ehrlich and Reed capture some of the most gorgeous views of the odd features and dreamlike sequences in the kelp forest.
My Octopus Teacher is a pleasantly watchable slice of how a man got back to the person he needed to be with the help of the nature he added himself into. Foster has grown as a man and I have a respect for the ecosystem nature has created for itself.