My Octopus Teacher is a documentary directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed and released by Netflix in 2020. It depicts a year that a filmmaker, Craig Foster, spent observing a common wild octopus in South Africa (Ehrlich and Reed). The documentary has only two protagonists who are Craig Foster and the octopus with whom he formed a relationship close to friendship. At first sight, the film may seem to raise the only problem that is the connection between people and wild nature that is almost lost nowadays due to the influence of technological progress. However, after deep analysis and careful consideration, it becomes evident that the documentary deals with more issues than human-animal relationships, though it is still the major theme of the film.
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The film does not say anything about human-animal relations explicitly since Craig Foster tried to show the viewers the life of the octopus and other ocean inhabitants. After seeing the picturesque views of the sea world and the author’s eagerness to study it combined with non-intervention, the audience understands the importance of guarding the connection with the wild world people almost lost. Thus, the film represents human-animal politics implicitly by showing that animals and people are alike, and the latter should take care of the former.
The relations between the human and wild natural world and inhabitants are shown not only by the commentaries of the narrator but by the video itself. Craig Foster managed to film not only the octopus but its natural habitat and other animals living there. He combines several cinematic techniques in order to let the viewers see the sea world from different angles. Long and medium shots enable the audience to see the location in more detail and as if to dive into the ocean with the operator and the protagonist. In contrast, a close-up shot helps the viewers get emotionally involved in the scene and look at the inhabitants of the ocean in a more detailed way (Jacklin). Apart from that, Craig Foster often uses such techniques as tracking shots and point-of-view shots. They let the viewers see the octopus closely and even trace Foster’s way from the shore to the octopus’s den.
The combination of the cinematic techniques described above enables the audience to see not only the world under the ocean but the life of the animals who live there as well. The detailed videos, in combination with the bright and vivid explanations and descriptions given by Craig Foster, make the audience get emotionally involved in ocean life. In addition, the point-of-view shot the operator often uses helps the viewers see everything through Foster’s eyes and share his view. As a result, at the end of the movie, people have a wide and picturesque view of the animals who live in the ocean and octopuses in particular. This understanding makes the viewers reflect on the relations among people and wild nature that is almost lost, as well as the nature itself is negatively influenced by human beings. Thus, the author does not try to put any message about human-animal relationships into the viewers’ heads, but he makes them think of it themselves. In order to do that, he shows ocean inhabitants as organisms almost equal to humans with their instincts, fears, and even feelings.
The film presents the relations between the human and the octopus that are demonstrated in an unusual way. On the one hand, the narrator implements the elements of drama, such as the recovery of the octopus after the attack of the shark or the final scenes of the octopus’s death. On the other hand, the author introduces the action-movie-like scenes, for instance, the octopus’s escape from the shark or the shark’s attack and the octopus’s wound at the end of it (Enrlich and Reed). At the same time, despite the detailed examples of ocean life, the author supports the idea of non-intervention into wild nature. Thus, he does not try to domesticate the octopus despite their mutual trust, and throughout the whole movie, he does not give her a name that means that the animal stays wild. The operator takes the role of an observer whose goal is to study the ocean life without changing it. Such actions of his teach the viewer to interact with nature without ruining it.
One of the most significant problems presented in the film, apart from the relationships between humans and animals, concerns the things Craig Foster understood after observing the octopus. In the middle of the film, after spending some time studying the octopus’s life, he confesses that doing it made him reflect on his personal life. At the beginning of the film, Foster says that he had an emotional burnout and was not able to enjoy his life and work or give love and support to his family (Enrlich and Reed). However, seeing the octopus paving her way through difficulties and dangers, the author drives a parallel with human life. “And it gave me a strange sort of confidence that she can get past trough this incredible difficulty. And I felt in my life, I was getting past the difficulties I had. In this strange way, our lives were mirroring each other” (Ehrlich and Reed 46:48-47:05). Thus, people may study the lives of other animals in order to find similarities with their own ones and to see that all living beings are alike in some way.
To conclude, it is necessary to say that My Octopus Teacher is not a typical documentary about ecology. Moreover, the narrator does not give any message throughout the film, he just demonstrates the day-by-day life of an octopus. The viewers may figure out the message themselves, and it may not be related to the ecology or human-animal relationship since everyone is different and, thus, will see the different issues the film deals with.
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Jacklin, Ben. Best Cinematography Techniques. Movavi, 2019.
Linden, Sheri. ‘My Octopus Teacher’: Film Review. The Hollywood Reporter, 2021.
My Octopus Teacher. Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, performance by Netflix, 2020.