Review: My Octopus Teacher
A Netflix documentary
Craig Foster spent a year following and learning from a wild octopus. It became a relationship that changed his life forever.
A decade in the making, this extraordinary documentary from South Africa was released in September 2020 as an original Netflix production. Filmed in underwater kelp forests near Cape Town, beneath turbulent waves that swirl around the tip of the African continent, the film is both transcendentally beautiful and emotionally engaging. It has profound lessons for us as students of Buddhism and acts as a parable for Zen practice.
The protagonist is Craig Foster, a wildlife cinematographer undergoing a midlife crisis. He is separated from his wife, estranged from his teenage son, and feeling depressed and alienated after many years of stressful overtime work in far-flung corners of the globe. Searching for a solution, he recalls filming the bushmen of the Kalahari desert and being impressed by how rooted they are in nature. The bushmen clearly share a strong bond with the world they live in: a oneness with it. Could this be a clue? Foster decides to return to his childhood home and take up free diving , a passion of his youth.
Free diving, as opposed to scuba diving with wetsuits and tanks, requires patient endurance, especially off the coast of South Africa. Foster has to acclimate to extremely cold water and build up his strength and focus while gradually increasing the time he can spend underwater. He is rewarded with a sense of freedom and wonder while exploring a unique, silent world of beauty beneath the waves.
Foster swims through giant fronds of seaweed, and we sense his excitement as he reveals the incredible topography and exotic creatures spread across the ocean floor. The turning point occurs when he discovers a female octopus cleverly hiding beneath an elaborate cloak of shells. The octopus bursts out of her camouflage and shoots off, displaying remarkable energy and intelligence. Foster decides to seek her out, and returns every day to observe her for an entire year (which incidentally corresponds to the average life span of an octopus). The relationship Craig Foster manages to establish with this alien creature is astonishing, heartwarming, and inspirational. At one point the octopus, now grown used to the man, reaches out and caresses his hand with one of her tentacles. We suddenly realize that we’re watching the most unlikely love story imaginable.
Yet this is only the beginning, for the film is really about a man’s return to mental health and equilibrium. It’s a true spiritual journey. The octopus, like the Kalahari bushmen, is one with nature - also known in Buddhism as the “true nature” or Buddha nature – expressing itself fully in each gesture and movement. It’s like watching the heart itself in action. The transformative powers of the octopus constantly amaze: one moment she’s leaping gracefully across the sea floor on two tentacle legs, the next she stretches out like a pancake covering and absorbing a crustacean meal. At one point, the octopus jumps on the back of a small shark, completely confusing the predator - a marvelous display of intelligence and cunning. But the lessons for us don’t end there. When a shark bites off one of her tentacles, the octopus retreats into her cave and gradually grows another. When it’s time to give birth to a hundred little replicas of herself, she submits to this ordeal even as it fatally weakens her. And when it’s her moment to die and be carried off in the mouth of one of her ever present foes, it seems fore-ordained and natural. Craig Foster, in the long process of the film’s creation, clearly discovers a new meaning to his life as both a diver and teacher. Most important of all, he forges a close bond with his son, who is inspired by his father’s love of ocean wonders and decides to follow in his footsteps.
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