Yes, My Octopus Teacher came out last fall and—before you say it—yes, I’m late to the party. My excuse for waiting close to six months to finally consume this thought-provoking and strikingly beautiful documentary film? Does being a parent in a global pandemic count? Thank goodness the 2021 Oscar nominations snapped me out of my accidental oblivion, in regards to this masterpiece.
The South African feature—about a free-diver named Craig Foster who, recovering from career burnout, spends his days in the frigid waters off the coast of Cape Town developing a friendship with an introverted yet enchanting octopus—is nominated for best documentary this year. Here’s why I think it deserves to win.
It’s Grizzly Man 2.0…minus the trauma. Remember Timothy Treadwell and the 2005 documentary that brought us up close and personal (often, a little too close) with his subject, a tribe of wild grizzly bears on an Alaskan reserve? Treadwell ended up being mauled to the death by the animal he came to love; in My Octopus Teacher, Foster—who is grappling with a bit of a mid-life crisis—is instead saved by the creature he meets and studies. There are additional parallels: Just like Treadwell, Foster gets remarkably close using his own camera, no film crew, to the marine life (not just the octopus, but sharks, fish and more) that live deep within the kelp forest where he dives. He also develops an intimate relationship with his subject, which leads to plenty of introspection, but in a way that’s much less reckless than Treadwell. (Treadwell’s naivety led to delusion that he was more powerful than the wilderness; Foster, on the other hand, is cautious about his intrusion, an approach that is deeply rooted in respect.)
Mother Nature, man. It’s striking and near unbelievable to watch Foster wade in, no oxygen tank or wet suit (he didn’t want to appear predatory like a seal), and disappear into the raging surf, relying on single breath, free diving to navigate the churn below. As he uses the kelp to pull himself deeper beneath the surface, wield his camera and locate a mollusk who’s quite skilled at making herself invisible, it’s impossible not to wonder aloud: How the heck did Foster pull this off? Via Foster’s lens, we’re exposed to a technicolor world with species we’ve never even heard of and a playful octopus as our tour guide.