After witnessing the same strong titles chase each other around the award nomination lists – Time, The Mole Agent, Collective, Crip Camp, Boys Camp, Welcome to Chechnya and Dick Johnson Is Dead, I was shocked by the absence of the last title – and what I consider the best film of 2020, documentary or otherwise – from the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature. In place of the inventive and daring Dick Johnson was another film distributed by Netflix, My Octopus Teacher, a precious title that begs to be whispered on NPR or obscured by a Caldecott Medal.
Though it’s been handsomely regarded on the natural doc festival circuit, I had not encountered this movie in the wild. So I immediately submerged my landlocked self into My Octopus Teacher and watched it with less-than-buoyant hopes on an afternoon off, the picture tinted red by my rage-colored vision.
The story follows burned-out nature filmmaker Craig Foster who, during daily dives from his residence on the Cape of Storms in South Africa, tracks and gently coaxes an octopus into an inter-species friendship. As framed by voiceover and interview footage with Foster, he learns to reconnect with the natural world through their daily interactions and his observations. It’s a feel-good film packaged with breathtaking underwater footage. I found its format frustrating and facile.
Nothing douses a burning anger at a movie like learning about the decent people behind it. This is a story pursued by a small band of filmmakers and conservationists – namely Foster and co-director and fellow underwater photographer extraordinaire Philippa Ehrlich – that involved years of commitment and, in Ehrlich’s case, quitting the safety of a full-time job to work on the diving photography. One can’t help but grin at their getting rewarded with an Oscar nod. And yes, the guy made friends with an octopus. And no doubt the joy he found in the relationship is real.
Craig – in fact all of us – were having deeply powerful experiences in the wild, but this was proving difficult to convey to viewers who didn’t have a similar frame of reference. We realised that the best way to get the power of these experiences across was to focus on the octopus’ story and tell it in the most emotive and authentic way we could. If viewers were drawn into the story, they would be more likely to absorb the larger ideas of deep nature connection, spiritual awakening and transformation and healing through having a relationship with the natural world. If we were too overt with these messages, we could make viewers uncomfortable and the whole story might get lost on them.
I find this informative of their choices, even as I’m skeptical of the result. Their intentions are plain and admirable, as is resisting a desire to shake the audience into environmental consciousness and aiming instead to share a connection with the natural world. I take no umbrage with the goals, only with the technique.
Anthropomorphizing animals is a common game for nature documentaries. Movies have used the ploy aplenty – you may remember 2006 when Morgan Freeman redubbed a looney French voiceover on penguin footage and both the Academy and the nation’s general audience lost their damn minds – but it’s typically the domain of television. We all can recognize the formula whether we were introduced to it by Planet Earth, Meerkat Manor, or (for us tortoises, ancient and wise) Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The trick is to take the hundreds of hours of footage recorded by patient nature photographers and use editing and voiceover to create a narrative. “The impala herd moves as one when the scent of a predator travels downwind. Jill, the mother, nudges her children forward and out of danger.”
For animal biologists, this footage probably holds less power, maybe looks nonsensical, since the shots used do not necessarily capture the same animal or even the same herd but are edited together from footage of several animals over weeks or months to demonstrate typical animal behavior regardless of continuity. To trained eyes some main characters might switch gender, zebras swap patterns, nursing young end up with a different mother. But for the rest of us, as long as a member of the same species is center frame, we take the narrator at their word that this is always Horace T. Lemur, giving us a continuous tour of his world.
My Octopus Teacher has its own set of tricks and omissions. It’s presented as a solitary midlife crisis exercise for Foster, joined by his son only at the very end. The film tracks its continuity by adding titles showing the number of days that have passed since the “first” dive with the octopus. These solitary dives are no doubt how it all started, but this narrative obviously doesn’t account for the whole process of getting the footage we see. For one thing Foster appears in several shots from a non-stationary camera. And incredible as his verité octopus footage is – and it is astonishing – it’s unlikely he would get the other fish to hold still for reaction shots or a hunting shark to repeat his route for a second angle. Where the movie does outdo the typical central-character nature doc, is that at least the central octopus actually is the same octopus throughout.
But even if the footage included takes of ten different octopi, it’s at least partly beside the point. I’m not interested in underwater home movies, I’m here to see a film. I expect a film to go back for inserts and restage Foster’s reverse shots if it’s needed to tell the story (much of these shots, in fact, were filmed after the octopus had died). This is handled well. But the filmmakers hinge their point about connecting with nature by placing our professorial octopus on a bit of an arbitrary pedestal. E.g. – when a small shark attacks the octopus, it’s a tragedy, but when the octopus hunts and kills, it’s magnificent (too bad for anybody hoping to learn from their Crab Teacher or Mollusk Teacher).
It’s understandable that My Octopus Teacher would describe its 8-armed supporting character in protagonist terms, but it’s also worth noting that this conceit is for the comfort of the humans watching, not the natural world. Werner Herzog raised a few eyebrows when he made Grizzly Man in 2005 and dryly insisted that the bears that Timothy Treadwell hung out with did not reciprocate his friendly feelings. Like Foster, Treadwell is captured in regular, maybe obsessive self-filmed interactions with wild creatures and pontificates about their friendship (it should be noted that Foster seems much, much more collected and approachable than the volatile Treadwell). “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy,” Herzog states over Treadwell’s close ups of the bears. “To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.” He had the benefit of hindsight over subject who had been killed and devoured by said bears, a circumstance which certainly colors one’s perspective. But what keeps Herzog’s voiceover in the mind years later is its refutation of the nature doc notion that animals necessarily share priorities with humans, and that a version that describes events this way is more self-serving than accurate.
My Octopus Teacher allows the octopus a level of consciousness beyond other sea creatures but blunts it when compared to its human friend. The shark attack results in a lost limb for the octopus. When she grows the missing limb back, Foster describes the process as a mirror of his own reemergence after losing himself to stress and work for years. Without downplaying the importance of mental health, it’s difficult to imagine documenting a human shark attack victim and describing their missing arm in terms of your sabbatical. This agenda-driven selective interpretation also allows for other forms of systemic myopia to creep in. Foster briefly describes his time documenting rural African hunters and the way it influenced his novel way of tracking the octopus. But it’s the octopus that gets dubbed his teacher.
This is not simply disappointment born of a silly competition- wait, I’m advocating for honesty. This is exactly what it seems, a petty grumble provoked by the stupid Oscars. But if I can attempt to justify the exercise, if I can pinpoint the reason I’m irked that Dick Johnson – the mortal enemy of this movie in my and nobody else’s imagination – lost its seat to a just fine movie gently championing conservation, it’s because both movies ultimately have a desire to comfort the audience and Dick Johnson does it by driving headlong into discomfort and pain and coming out the other side, while Octopus placates, laying a flattering human perspective on the surface of its movie instead of plunging into the depths.