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My Octopus Teacher

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What it’s about:

A filmmaker and naturalist develops an unlikely bond with an octopus in a South African kelp forest, capturing the stunning world she inhabits and the often miraculous feats she accomplishes as she struggles to survive.

Why it’s worth your time:

It feels like a love story. Craig Foster, a filmmaker adrift in mid-life, returns to his childhood roots, free diving in South Africa’s kelp forests, this time with his camera. He discovers an octopus – referred to only as “she” – and manages to find her each day, despite her elusiveness, ducking, weaving, and hiding throughout a vast colorful underworld, all the while deploying her camouflage and shape-shifting talents.

We see, for the first time on camera, the wild brilliance of this mysterious mollusk: ejecting ink into the path of a predator one minute, walking on two arms like a human the next, unfurling herself to resemble the ribbons of kelp, only to burst into a deep red and transform into a different creature entirely.

After a violent attack by a pajama shark that leaves her missing a tentacle, we watch as she gradually emerges from hiding and recovers, regenerating her lost limb. And just as she’s back in her best fighting form, our heroine finds herself chased by another shark, darting high and low until, in the nick of time, she assembles a life-saving coat of arms from seashells, somehow surviving the predator’s fierce and furious attack. She emerges from the armor and outwits the beast, ultimately climbing onto his back–riding him as he slithers into the depths of the kelp before she slips off and escapes.

Slowly, the octopus becomes more than just a subject of a nature doc, as she starts to take notice of Foster, somehow able trust him enough to actually approach the giant. We watch as she reaches out a tentacle to touch him, her eyes magnifying into saucers. At another moment, she appears to seek solace in his arms, with no camouflage or shape shifting to protect herself.

At this point, as you’ve watched her fight for survival each day against a murky world of marauders, you almost want him to rescue her. Of course, he can’t, and questions arise about his role and that of other humans disrupting the natural order, even as passive observers. That is where the lessons of this octopus teacher inevitably lead us, and you’ll just have to see it all to decide for yourself what they’re all about.

This Oscar-nominated documentary has taken while to catch an audience, never getting the press or Netflix platform visibility of the many competing nature docs with high profile narrators like Richard Attenborough and Meghan Markle. But the human-animal connection depicted in this film sets it apart from the usual fare. While many magical worlds and spectacular feats of wildlife are being captured on film for the first time–a tribute to advanced camera and production techniques–we’ve never quite seen anything like this before.

The takeaway:

A stunning, magical and emotional documentary that inspires awe and empathy, My Octopus Teacher brings a  personal narrative to a nature documentary and captures the brilliance of a familiar sea creature like nothing before it.

Watch it with:

The biggest screen you can.  Kids welcome, as it’s G-Rated.

Worth noting:

Besides an Academy Award nomination, the film’s accolades include BAFTA and PGA awards for Best Documentary.  Not everyone is fully on board, however, as critics question the role of the filmmaker in interfering — or not interfering enough — in the underwater ecosystem. Others have taken issue with the oddly romantic undertones of his fixation with the titular cephalapod.

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