My Octopus Teacher is a spine-tingling story that just won an Oscar last Sunday night at this year’s Academy Awards in the Documentary category. It had also garnered a BAFTA in London the weekend for.
The first film I’ve seen earn a 100 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the cinema rating system comparable to Moody’s for Wall Street’s Stock Exchange.
But it isn’t just critics who are bedazzled by this deeply moving story. Filmed off the coast of South Africa largely in a turbulent Atlantic Ocean, it’s also ordinary viewers who watch and then recommend the film to friends.
It’s a film that is safe for children and delicate minds to watch because it is not only beautiful, presenting exquisite underwater cinematography. It’s also bitter-sweet since it’s a kind of love story that, as most love stories do, ends in tragedy.
But then, the finale of the film features redemption of an equally fulfilling kind.
My Octopus Teacher is all about two characters: Craig Foster, a photographer facing a kind of midlife crisis which gets turned around once he encounters a curious creature in the sea. It turns out to be an animal capable of camouflaging itself more ingeniously than a chameleon.
Foster finds this invertebrate can not only change her colour, texture, and size. She can shape-shift into an infinite number of forms, depending on what is happening in her environment.
Foster grew up on the ocean’s coast, right where the tides and giant waves roll in at all hours of day and night. A first-class swimmer, he is not at peace with himself on land. But he tries doing a day job for years. That takes him to the Kalahari Desert where he meets indigenous people, men who he says are some of the best trackers in the world.
He is in awe of these scouts who can distinguish between foot tracks left in sand by sundry creatures, and they will know which one. These bush trackers inspire him to go back to the place he loves, namely the sea and try tracking creatures in a way similar to what they do. That leads him to find one relatively small octopus, the one that intrigued him that first day.
Committing himself to watching her respectfully every day until he gains her trust, what might seem incorrigible about the man is why he would do such a thing with his life? In fact, Foster doesn’t disclose the nature of his crisis. But he speaks with such humility and reverence for nature and the wild, you easily see he was looking for a purpose. And this octopus gives him what he desires.
In fact, My Octopus Teacher is something of a love story because Foster dedicates himself to tracking and visiting her every day in the sea.
He wears no body suit, only shorts and a small oxygen device. He says that’s because he wants to understand her environment personally.
Her domain is a thick green kelp forest filled with an abundance of fellow sea creatures, both predators and prey. Because he eventually gains the octopus’s trust, he is able to witness her everyday life in the wild which is still pristine clean and clear.
The moment she actually allows herself to touch his hand is breath-taking. Maybe not everyone will feel this way. But Foster together with a brilliant co-cinematographer Roger Horrocks and sensitive sound man named Kevin Smuts build up such a beautifully emotive backdrop to her dropping her guard that one cannot help but be moved by that delicate gesture.
But their bonding doesn’t change the predatory nature of Pajama Sharks, the fish most threatening to the octopus’s life. Foster admits he would’ve wanted to step in and save her from that sneaky stalker. But he soon discovers she can take care of herself. And this is where we see her shape-shifting as only a spineless, soft-skinned being can move.
I won’t give away how the romance between Foster and his ‘Teacher’ ends. But we the audience can’t help feeling that we, like Foster, have learned many things from this film. First and foremost is the true beauty of an unpolluted terrain. We also see the incredible allure of the ocean. Foster says it feels like flying once you catch the rhythm of that underwater realm.
In the end, Foster is able to share his joy of the sea with his son, and that’s his ultimate redemption.
My Octopus Teacher is on Netflix.