My Octopus Teacher makes film history

Craig Foster, the South African conservationist, speaks to Jack Dutton about the overwhelming response to his Oscar-winning film, My Octopus Teacher and how he hopes it will encourage people to protect the oceans.

Last year, as Covid-19 spread around the globe, people started developing a new appreciation for the outdoors. People flocked to parks, gardens and beaches to help them get through draconian lockdowns while shops, bars and restaurants remained empty.

The streaming service Netflix tapped into this increased desire to connect with nature and released several documentaries exploring the theme. One of them stood out from the pack. It told a heartwarming story about a man who befriended an eight-limbed mollusc in the Atlantic Ocean.

Critically-acclaimed, My Octopus Teacher made Oscar history on 26 April, becoming the first South African film to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

The film tells the deeply moving story of South African naturalist Craig Foster and his friendship with the octopus concerned, which he meets through diving sessions in False Bay.

The documentary, shot off South Africa’s south-west coast over the course of a decade, opens the viewer’s eyes to life under the sea, and the day-to-day life of this mysterious, little-studied creature.

The Sea Change Project, a non-profit that Foster founded in 2012 that intends to raise awareness of the beauty and ecological importance of South Africa’s kelp forest, made the film in collaboration with Netflix and production company Off the Fence. When Foster, who also produced the film, first started regularly diving in False Bay back in 2010, he became obsessed with the coruscating and elusive marine animal.

He followed one through her one-year life cycle, capturing stunning footage of the octopus feeding on shrimp and escaping the jaws of pyjama sharks. As he was making the film, Foster grew close to the tentacled animal, considered to be the world’s most intelligent invertebrate.

“I just wanted to share the daily joy and wonder and curiosity this ecosystem kindles in me, with all of its wonderful creatures,” Foster told New African.

“And the absolute privilege of that one particular octopus who chose to let me into her secret world. I just wanted to honour that and show that deep connection and empathy with nature was an absolute possibility and that it’s also the need of the hour.”

When Foster first began filming with directors Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed and executive producer Ellen Windemuth, they barely had a budget. The film was mainly made in a small room on the top floor of Foster’s house.

“At the time, just to get it to a broadcaster seemed like a challenge. So when Netflix came on board with Sarah Edelson as the executive producer, and it became a Netflix original, that felt huge,” Foster says.

Directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed pose in the press room with the 2021 Oscar for best Documentary Feature for “My Octopus Teacher”. (Photo: Chris Pizzello / POOL / AFP)

More important than awards

Foster was pleasantly surprised when the film won the 2020 Bafta Award for Best Documentary. It also won the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Documentary in March this year.

But some things are more important than awards – the film also helped Foster reconnect with his family. He was going through a difficult time, making three films back-to-back to tight deadlines.

“I had the burn-out and anxiety as a result, and really felt like I never wanted to make another film. I didn’t have the mental or the emotional capacity for that time to be the kind of committed father I wanted to be.”

After spending valuable time immersed in nature, Foster regained the energy to better support his family. He became closer to his son – they now swim and dive together, and his son composed some of the music and did all of the drone shots for the film. Foster’s wife Swati Thiyagarajan, a conservation journalist in her own right, was also involved in the entire making of the film from day one, working as production manager.

The filmmakers received thousands of messages from fans telling them how the documentary affected them. Some were deeply personal.

“Some people wrote about how the film stopped them from feeling suicidal this year, as they started going out more to experience nature, or swimming, after they saw it,” Foster says.

“Many students wrote saying they were going to choose marine biology as a major; professors and mental health professionals wrote to us saying they were going to use the movie as a teaching tool; children just loved the octopus,” he adds.

After watching the film, tens of thousands of people also said they would stop eating octopus and become more conscious of their seafood consumption.

Presidential nod

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa even wrote a letter to congratulate the film’s team for their Oscar win. Ramaphosa called conservation of the oceans “a national priority” for South Africa and said the film would encourage greater appreciation of life below the surface.

Foster agrees, and hopes the film will encourage people to take care of marine ecosystems at a time when the health of the oceans is deteriorating. 

“We need to understand that biodiversity is the immune system of this planet and climate change is a disease – if we lose our biodiversity, no amount of artificial climate change mitigation measures will help. We have to conserve ecosystems, protect what is already here and help regenerate that which has been degraded or lost,” Foster says.

“If people can see how one little octopus has such a rich and varied life and can teach a human so much, then they will know just how precious all of life is and that we need to work towards the long-term conservation of nature.”

He believes if humans can fully understand how essential such ecosystems are and learn to love them, mankind will make the right choices to protect the planet.

“So we hope with the film that people can see that this is possible, that we can step out and find wonder in the world around us, and that so much beauty and wonder is waiting.”

The My Octopus Teacher team is taking a break from filming other documentaries for now, but Foster says “One never knows what could happen in the sea forest on any given day and inspire us.”

He is currently working on a book with Sea Change co-founder Ross Frylinck called Underwater Wild.

The organisation is continuing its exploration of the Great African Seaforest – the only giant bamboo kelp forest in the world, which fringes the shores of Cape Town and stretches 1,000km north into Namibia – and is working to secure funding to establish a science institute. Other Sea Change members are working on several projects aimed at the long-term conservation and regeneration of the forest.

Decade of hope

Foster believes that the 2020s will be a crucial decade to take meaningful action to protect the planet, a time to make strong policy changes and work towards social justice regarding climate change. Foster intends to use the “decade of hope” to increase awareness of marine ecosystems through his non-profit, so that the public support their long-term protection.

Foster still regularly dives around False Bay, filming and regularly meeting tentacled friends along the way.

“I continue honing my underwater tracking skills and I see many octopuses every day. Sometimes we have some fun interactions and at other times not.

“I don’t think I will ever again have that same long-term interaction I had with my octopus teacher, because that was one particular octopus and her personality that allowed that. It’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime privilege.” 

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