Why Oscar-Nominated Documentary 'My Octopus Teacher' Left People Wanting More

Photo: Netflix
Craig Foster with the octopus in his arms

“My Octopus Teacher” is a 2020 Netflix Original documentary that had people in tears and in awe upon its release. Now, it’s been nominated at the Oscars for Best Documentary Feature.

The film documents the year-long journey of filmmaker Craig Foster, and the relationship he formed with an octopus in its ocean home off the coast of South Africa.

The relationship between the two that made such a unique story that left people spellbound. Beware of spoilers below.

How the Relationship Began

Foster gained a new sense of hope and purpose following the relationship he built with an octopus. He visited the animal every day for almost a year in the Great African Sea Forest off the coast of South Africa.

“A lot of people say that an octopus is like an alien. But the strange thing is, as you get closer to them, you realize you’re very similar in a lot of ways,” Foster said.

“You’re stepping into this completely different world, such an incredible feeling, and you feel as though you’re on the brink of something extraordinary.”

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He went free diving in temperatures as cold as 46 degrees Fahrenheit without a wetsuit. After his first few encounters with the octopus, referred to only as “her,” he said he had the “crazy” idea to visit her every day and see how their trust would be built. He didn’t name her because she “was not a pet and I respect her wildness."

The journey included tear-jerking moments such as when the octopus first reached out to touch Foster. It included tense moments when the octopus faced the threat of pyjama sharks on multiple occasions.

Most notably, it ended with the octopus giving birth to thousands of babies and becoming weak before being swept away in the mouth of a pyjama shark.

Foster created a relationship with a marine animal that was filled with great moments and respect. Foster made sure not to “mess” with nature and let it take its course. He simply wanted to understand the creature, but he ended up learning about himself as well.

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The Story Behind the Lens

The director and editor, Pippa Ehrlich, is the creative mind behind the film with Foster serving as star and founder. Ehrlich is a member of the Sea Change Project which is a nonprofit “dedicated to connecting human beings to the wild and protecting the Great African Sea Forest.” To the surprise of many, this was her first feature-length film.

“What I loved about this story is there was a story of positivity and hope that involved human beings and the natural world being in one place,” Ehrlich told TODAY. “It was an opportunity to expand people’s perceptions of what the relationship between us and the wild can be.”

It was a match made in heaven as she already had a deep passion for the kelp forest the octopus inhabited before Foster approached her with his story. She too dove without a wetsuit in the cold waters as she wanted to tell the story through Foster’s eyes.

Although the film is only 85 minutes long, the filming and editing on Ehrlich’s part took three years with Foster having worked on it for about 7 years prior.

“Sometimes we worked for 18 hours a day,” she said. “Often we’d edit for six hours, go and shoot for three hours, and then come back and edit some more because we were so excited about what we’d got while we were in the water.”

Ehrlich was surprised but delighted with the reception of the film across the world. “I’ve read thousands of messages,” she said. From letters all the way from India, Ehrlich hopes that the film reminds viewers of the importance that nature has on our day-to-day lives.

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The Legacy Left Behind

The film touches people and resonates with them in all different ways. One could reflect on a personal relationship in their life, or have a more profound respect for the ocean, or become more aware of the wealth of marine life.

For Foster, he learned about the fragility of life and nature. The greatest impact to him was the deeper bond that he developed with his son who is an aspiring diver who studies& marine life. He can be seen toward the end of the documentary sharing his father’s passion for the ocean.

Many viewers felt there should be a sequel to the film that follows Foster’s son and the baby octopuses left behind as shown at the end of the film. One Twitter user wrote, “No way! This is set up perfectly for a future film. I’ll be patiently waiting for the next few years until the next one!”

Although a sequel may never happen, the film is going to be celebrated for a least a few more months at the Oscars, which takes place on April 25 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.

We’ll all be rooting for the film that brought tears and smiles to our faces, as we keep in mind that a bond and relationship can be found anywhere if looked for hard enough. Maybe even behind a rock off the coast of South Africa.

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Tomás Diniz Santos is a writer living in Orlando, Florida. He covers news, entertainment, and pop-culture topics.