The film won Best Documentary Feature at the 93rd Academy Awards.TWITTER/DOCFILMMAKERSSA

Early on in the Oscar winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, Craig Foster recounts how he had a “deep longing” to be inside the world of nature. Here, he remembers the moment he decided to dive every day in the Cape Town kelp-forests as an attempt to deal with the overwhelming stresses of his life and work as a filmmaker. This is the setting for a meet-cute with an octopus that would become, unbeknownst to it, his life-coach over the next year.

The documentary follows their relationship, between man and octopus, and sets out to ask what this tells us about our own connection to the natural world. The story that unfurls is far from straightforward — it is full of heart-warming moments interrupted by near death experiences (admittedly, only for the octopus), that leave the viewer asking more than Craig’s mildly unsettling question of what she, the octopus, is getting out of their relationship.

The feature was praised for its striking underwater visuals.TWITTER/VIFFEST

I really wanted to like the product of directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s work in bringing this story to our screens and, for the most part, I did — it is undeniably a mesmerising visual experience. As an attempt at rethinking our relationship with nature, My Octopus Teacher doesn’t fail in painting a stunning picture of a world untouched by humanity’s grubby hands.

As I watched, however, I found it increasingly difficult to focus on the documentary’s beautiful portrait of ocean life — it became almost impossible to ignore my frustrations with its perplexing narrative. I couldn’t help but be bugged by Craig constantly reminding me that there is a line that cannot be crossed between humanity and the animal kingdom while he incessantly poked around the octopus’s home every day for a year.

It almost seemed like he was happy to cross that ‘line’ to film his “friendship” with this fascinating creature, but as soon as a small pyjama shark came hunting closeby, he distanced himself from the animal world to film the octopus fending for itself. I felt like the documentary constantly flip-flopped between breaking down the barriers between humanity and the natural world, only to build them up again when nature got too, well, natural.

Producer Craig Foster struck an unlikely friendship with an Octopus.TWITTER/WESGRO

Maybe it’s wrong of me to let My Octopus Teacher’s confused narrative get under my skin; surely this award-winning documentary deserves more slack. After all, it presents itself as the impressive product of one man, his local environment, and a camera — in this context, any number of flaws in its narrative are forgivable. But it simply isn’t such an innocent production. It’s the result of three years of collaboration between multiple directors and editors, extensive debate about what story it should tell, and financial backing from Netflix. In other words, it’s fair game.

The sheer number of people weighing in on the creation of My Octopus Teacher must have contributed to confusing the documentary’s message. The directors, editors, and Craig clearly wanted to turn their treasure trove of film into something profound and meaningful, but agonising over the edits left something lost in translation.

“The documentary constantly flip-flopped between breaking down the barriers between humanity and the natural world.”

Whatever the reason, it is impossible to ignore that this documentary presents the interactions between Craig and the world of the octopus in ways that are at odds with one another — one moment the octopus is humanised by Craig’s narration into a “waving friend” or she’s said to be walking like an “old lady in a dress,” and the next she’s just animal prey in the process of nature, outside the realm of human affairs.

It’s possible that this was an ethical choice; deciding to let nature take its course seems to be an industry standard in wildlife filming, and if that means Craig had to restrain from intervening to prevent his new eight-legged friend being eaten, so be it. However, just taking a glance at the BBC’s nature filming ethics guide (although not the best place to look for ethics advice right now) shows Craig to have wandered back and forth over his uncrossable line between man and nature throughout My Octopus Teacher.

Guidance as to the amount and proximity of contact with the octopus must have been crossed in multiple scenes that depict him allowing the octopus to climb onto his chest. So my question still stands, if in these moments he was willing to cross the ethical line that he draws between the animal kingdom and himself, why didn’t he step in when the octopus was inches away from becoming a shark’s lunchtime snack.

The film raised questions about ethics and the relationship between humans and animals.TWITTER/HLHENDRI

Who knows, maybe the film did its job in making me like the octopus so much that I couldn’t understand why Craig stood by when it was in danger, or maybe he’s just a fake friend, but I feel like this aspect of the documentary confused its big-picture message. I just didn’t know what My Octopus Teacher’s lesson really was. I know that the documentary wanted to teach me to rethink my relationship with nature, but I’m not sure if it wants me to run around in the forests of England making friends with animals as I go, or to leave nature to its natural ways.


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For me, the story of Craig and his octopus friend confusingly dissolves the boundaries between humans and animals while reinforcing the sanctity of the animal kingdom.