By Dr. P. Aparna
“The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.”
William Wordsworth, Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey
This healing power of the nature is reflected in the Netflix original documentary “My Octopus Teacher” which won the award for the best documentary at the 93rd Academy awards. It shows the bonding between a sea diver (Craig Foster, also the producer) and an octopus in its natural habitat: the Kelp forest in False Bay near Cape Town in South Africa. Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, My Octopus Teacher shows Craig, a documentary filmmaker and naturalist, go to sea to heal himself of the vagaries of the world where he finds solace and rejuvenation in his bonding with an octopus.
In My Octopus Teacher, the way the curious, inquisitive mollusc reacts to the stranger is amazing! The initial mistrust and fear is slowly replaced by confidence and love that is silently exchanged between the animal and the human. And Craig is admirable for the value he attaches to the octopus’ feelings and its presence. He is cautious, sensitive and empathetic. In the process, he avoids wet suit and oxygen cylinders so as to not disturb the ecosystem and to blend with it. When he drops a thing and frightens the nearing mollusc, he is deeply embarrassed by the fear he created in the creature. He blames himself for the mistake. It is a great treatise on building relationships where one should not encroach upon the territory or trust of another. And also a lesson on how delicate it is to handle relationships!
He goes on to say how his deep longing for the invertebrate blows into an ‘obsession’. He doesn’t want to miss a single day of her life. He braves the chilling water (46 degrees Fahrenheit) and other predators to be with ‘her’. The documentary films one year of bonding though between Craig and the mollusc. It took three years for the team to complete the documentary.
The octopus is fiery, intelligent, fun loving and trust worthy! When sharks attack, it changes its war tactics in a span of few seconds. It camouflages. Then it surrounds itself with the kelp leaves and peeps at the shark. In another dare devil act, it jumps on to the shore for a few minutes only to return with vigour. Seeing no proper hiding nearby, it surrounds itself with the shells as a shield! The shark tries in vain to break the shield to reach it. In the process, the octopus gets in the shark’s back and takes it for a ride: shows the incredible spirit of the creature! The shark retreats being ‘outwitted’ by the tender octopus. Earlier on, we watch how being amputated of an arm, it gains strength and jumps back to life! Some of these instances in My Octopus Teacher are indeed lessons for humans to not give up in the face of adversity.
Just as much as we are amused and awed by the octopus’ resilience, our hearts bleed when the vivacious being slowly wastes away after mating and during the childbirth (the male octopus dies soon after mating and female octopus dies after giving birth.) When we see a pale, dying octopus being eaten away by small fish, unable to resist due to weakness, we can hardly stop tears. Finally, when a shark comes for it, we bade good bye to a great fighter! The last hug it gave Craig becomes all the more precious.
It must have been challenging for Craig to shoot the scenes underneath the water alone in the initial stages. What is redeeming about him (despite him misgendering another living being even as an act of love or compassion) is how he does not ‘disturb’ the ecosystem and goes on to show his awareness about how there are lines that ‘should not be crossed’. This is perhaps what mankind in general needs to learn. The egotist man cannot understand the nature. He has to be humble enough to be a part of this great food chain. Many times he wishes to protect the mollusc from the inevitable predators but he knows how the system has to function without interruption. Human interruption is, after all, the reason for the destruction happening around the world now. If only man realises that he is a part of this phenomenon and not the boss of it and stop meddling with it, nature would graciously bestow her peace and wisdom on him. Just as Wordsworth sees a ‘nurse’ as a ‘teacher’ and a ‘presence’ in the nature, Craig heals and reconnects with his family after his surreal experience with the octopus in My Octopus Teacher.
Chancing upon the nuances of building trust with the mollusc, being a part of its success (hunting expeditions) and failures (limb mutilation by a shark): emotions well up unaware as one watches My Octopus Teacher. The viewer is taken on a journey into the aquatic world which surprises with its similarities to the life on land. A whole new experience of the lives underneath the sea is captured with clarity and precision. The bond of Craig with the octopus diffuses to the audience and as My Octopus Teacher ends, we are left feeling the pangs of separation and grieving the loss of the intelligent, incredible creature! With Craig, the audience too develops a bond with the octopus. And it haunts us even after the film ends, what I believe is the boomerang effect of the honesty and empathy of the creators of My Octopus Teacher which reflects in every frame.
My Octopus Teacher also has also an Indian connection. Swathi Thiyagarajan, wife of Foster, is the assistant producer. She herself is an environmentalist and filmmaker. Craig started the Sea Change Project to protect the Kelp forest underneath the sea. His son Tom also partakes in his dad’s passion and is now a young marine biologist ‘gentled’ by his contact with nature. On the whole the 85 minute long documentary enlivens the warmth of human bonding with nature and sends out the message that man is not a ‘guest’ but a part of this wonderful ecosystem on the planet and reminds us of our duty to protect it.
Dr P Aparna is a lecturer at Government Polytechnic, Hindupur.
Featured image source: Katangus