“My Octopus Teacher,” November 10, 2020, documentary, Netflix. First a brief prologue. When I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, I never knew people ate octopuses. My only contact with the beasts was at the aquarium or in bad sci-fi movies. When we moved to New Jersey when I was 16, I only slowly came to understand them as a food item when my family dined in New York City. And then, about 15 or 20 years ago, I began to read newspaper articles that described rather astounding feats executed by octopuses in labs where they were being studied. Their intelligence surprised me, their ability to teach other octopuses things they learned shocked me. And I decided to remove them entirely from my ‘will-eat list.’
This back-story is partly why the arrival of this documentary piqued my interest, if not my taste buds. I heard a segment on NPR one day, and was happy to learn that it was available through Netflix. What we saw was both gorgeous and fascinating. The film follows the story of South African videographer Craig Foster on a search for himself in the incredibly cold Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Cape of Storms. And he really is looking for himself there as he’s coming apart in the life he’s leading. Swimming in a kelp forest, he sees a single female octopus. Going back day after day, he establishes a relationship with this mollusk that demonstrates its connection to him, its intelligence, and its surprising levels of creativity. He, in turn, acknowledges his “love” for this creature. As with many interspecies relationships, this one does not end happily but it does end naturally. And it sets Foster off on a new path in his life.
This is a photographer’s film and it’s as beautiful as one can imagine. The colors, the observations, really floored me. And the amazing natural resourcefulness and survival practices of these creatures—they are evolutionary advances of millions of years-are simply amazing.
This is not your usual ‘wild nature’ film. It’s very much about Foster and this one octopus, his octopus teacher. The film shows us what she does and can do, but doesn’t categorize and characterize or explain these in terms of scientific or evolutionary categories. We don’t learn the basic stats of this creature, how long they’ve ‘been around,’ it’s average size and how big this one really is (it’s really hard to tell), its usual diet, it’s breeding and reproduction patterns except for the scenes we’re shown after it mates (and how do they even encounter one another as they live singularly). I wish he’d told us about those things but this is about their relationship and what he sees her do, not about octopuses, per se, except by extrapolation. In the end, this is also about Foster’s evolution in that environment from videographer to activist It really is worth seeing, but like me I suspect you’ll wind up online over the next few days looking up things about octopuses. Note: Several of the terms in this documentary made it as part of a NYT crossword puzzle I did that week.