Craig Foster’s ‘My Octopus Teacher’ is proof that beneath the amorphous and kaleidoscopic skin of the octopus, there is something more – a message that could not be more relevant to the vertiginous state of human life today. What sets it apart from other documentaries, however, is the ways in which it can appeal directly to the individual. Rather than bringing our position within the entirety of humankind into sharp relief, it plays to a different set of emotions we all possess – and in a much quieter, slower way than some of the epic and cinematic pieces we have written on in the past.
The notion that we, as human beings, are forever posed with opportunities to learn from the natural world is nothing new. The very fact of our race’s beginnings is testament to the fact that nature will always be older and wiser entity, while we merely build ourselves up on its shoulders.
Still, to be faced with profound lessons about human nature and life’s meaning from a creature that, for all intents and purposes, bears a closer resemblance to some alien than it does to anything we encounter on dry land is jarring, to say the least.
Craig Foster’s ‘My Octopus Teacher’ is, however, proof that beneath the amorphous and kaleidoscopic skin of the octopus, there is something more – a message that could not be more relevant to the vertiginous state of human life today. What sets it apart from other documentaries, however, is the ways in which it can appeal directly to the individual. Rather than bringing our position within the entirety of humankind into sharp relief, it plays to a different set of emotions we all possess – and in a much quieter, slower way than some of the epic and cinematic pieces we have written on in the past.
In this documentary, the premise finds that perfect middle ground between simplicity and depth – it wields the trope of man confronting nature face-on in an unexpected, though entirely comforting, way.
For the team at Atlantic Renewables, perhaps the most powerful take-away from this documentary was the reminder that complex emotions are not unique to human beings, and that we cannot use our own intelligence as a way to justify the mistreatment of other species and the destruction of their natural habitats.
A Quiet Allegory
Many of the documentaries we have written on in the past have depicted a much broader relationship with nature. From the nature of their investigations to the cinematography, these episodes have offered us an awe-inspiring look into the natural world – and, of course, a stark look at the ways in which our modern ways of life have harmed the environment, and will continue to do so.
My Octopus Teacher, however, occurs on a much smaller scale. In essence, it is the story of two individuals – Craig Foster, and a female octopus he meets by chance one day while diving in a cold water kelp forest off the coast of South Africa.
Within the small world these two share together, however, there forms a microcosm in which everything Harrelson, Attenborough and Efron have sought to impart to audiences. For one thing, the fragility of nature, and the fact that we still have a great deal to learn from its natural rhythms – for another, the limitations we must confront when it comes to our innate abilities to help.
This is, of course, where the allegory grows deeper still – and where we can begin to reflect on wider issues impacting us today.
Confronting Our Limitations
When the octopus is attacked by pyjama sharks, Foster is forced to face the limitations of his own position within nature’s cycle – the fact that, while his resources and intellectual capacity goes beyond what we can glean from the natural world, his is still equally as powerless against its organisations and patterns.
In many ways, this is reflective of what it means to be human, and to experience first-hand our increasingly precarious position in the world as the twenty-first century steams ahead.
For, while we understand that the impact humankind is having on the planet will one day lead to its downfall, as individuals, it is easy to feel like a passive onlooker to the sad but inevitable turn nature has been forced to take. As individuals, coming to understand the sheer scope of the climate issues bearing down upon us has ‘put us in our place’, so to speak, in just the same way that Foster was reminded of his own place when the sharks struck – one of powerlessness and regret.
Still, opportunities for renewal are posed to the individual as much as the crowd. Just as the lifecycle of this one octopus features moments of profound sadness and periods of regeneration, so too does our journey toward a better future – and, when the natural order is able to take precedence, nature’s tendency toward regeneration will always win in the end.
Craig Foster’s documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’ is currently available as a Netflix Original. While deeply moving, it also offers a practical study of the intelligence of nature, and the ways in which it continues on outside of human influence. As a result, it is at once humbling and inspiring, and we would recommend it to anyone who may, over the course of the past year, have begun to feel disconnected from their rightful place within the natural order of things.