An Octopus’s Garden.
In this time of world paranoia and pissant politics, anti-social media and overwhelming junk art, you can do nothing better than to extricate yourself from humanity and immerse your overextended senses in nature’s harmony and fluid balance. Put something off, be irresponsible, and sink into the wondrous world of MY OCTOPUS TEACHER, a documentary about a man who leaves the bleeping, blaring bull behind, and centers himself in an octopus’s garden in the shade.
Filmmaker Craig Foster, while free-diving in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Africa (he narrates the water is 30-degrees F, yet he “welcomes the cold”), discovers a common octopus living in a kelp forest. Over the course of months, visiting daily, Foster forms a bond with the curious, enigmatic animal, until it grows to trust him completely, allowing him to transport it in his hand.
Not just a love story between Foster and the female octo, the doc also gives us much insight into the octopus species itself, as Foster captures and narrates footage of the octopus in its natural habitat, exhibiting an intelligence that far exceeds dogs, and maybe even chimps and dolphins (the hoarding of shells to serve a “future” purpose; the extraordinary mimicry in colors, shapes, texture; the cognizant behavior towards Foster).
Foster ponders on what the octopus might be getting out of the interaction, surmising that his non-threatening presence might be “quite stimulating for that huge intelligence.”
When Foster observes the octopus “playing” with schools of fish – shooting out its arms and teasing them – discerning that it is not predatory behavior, that was the most tear-jerking moment for me, as I pondered on this intelligence encapsulated in this body wholly unlike any structure we as humans could possibly imagine. How aware IS it? Maybe in this epoch, its only outlet is to chase fish and fool around with shells, but over eons, where will this intelligence end up? Already more dexterous than humans, more cunning than anyone who thinks to entrap it, more aware of its environment than many of its fellow sea dwellers, is this entity transitioning into a tool-building, world-changing force? Ah, but that might make it as stupid as homo sapiens…
Foster impresses on us the quietude of this alien kelp environment, unlike anything that even he, as a free-diver, has ever experienced. It’s what he was looking for, removing himself from the grind of the modern world, learning that he is one with the natural world… with a very unlikely teacher. Kevin Smuts’ soundtrack will wash over you like the feral tides above the kelp forest, perfectly hitting each beat, whether it be intriguing, harrowing, comedic, or drawing tears.
As touching as Foster’s interaction with the octopus is, the doc is definitely structured like a movie in three acts: Act I, where Foster removes himself from his wife and kid and job, and discovers the octopus; Act II – shark attack, which takes one of the octopus’s limbs (very sad! although it grows back!); into Act III, where the octopus regards Foster like an old companion, and then must mate and die; a natural yet cruel death (to our human sensibilities), whereby the mother octopus sacrifices her physical body for her young.
Don’t let my cinematic cynicism detract from the beauty of this poignant doc. MY OCTOPUS TEACHER is refreshing as a wave of freezing water splashing over you, and grabbing you with eight constricting arms.