By M.A. Joe Antony, SJ
I chose to watch the film not because it won this year’s Oscar award for the best documentary feature. What made me do so is what I read about it. Writer after writer, critic after critic praised it in glowing terms. The film is called My Octopus Teacher.
In this issue of INI there is a feature in which 12 Jesuits share about what Corona taught them. So the title for that could have been ‘My Corona Teacher.’ For those who are ready to learn, anything can become a teacher. They find “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones.” Therefore even the deadly virus that has caused so much of havoc and so much of heartache around the world can teach us something important. This film is about what an ugly, repulsive animal that lives in the ocean – an octopus – taught a film maker, Craig Foster.
Growing up in a house that was on the sea shore in South Africa, Foster was drawn powerfully to the ocean and all that lived in it. Swimming and diving became his passion. Naturally, therefore, he began to film what he found in the depths of the ocean. Earlier he came up with a film called Sharkman which was on sharks and another one on crocodiles called The Dragon’s Lair.
About ten years ago, he went through a difficult phase in his life, caused by exhaustion and burn out. He faced problems also in his relationship with his school-going son, Tom. Hoping to find healing, strength and energy, he started to dive in the Great African Seaforest — at the southern tip of South Africa. He did this almost every day.
One of those days he sees this Octopus. He is drawn to it. No, he is drawn to her. Foster, who is the producer and narrator of the film, refers to the eight-armed octopus only as ‘she’, ‘her’ etc. Slowly, a friendship blossoms – a friendship between a human and an animal.
We know that pets like dogs and cats can be friends, even best friends of humans. Luckily quite a few seem to be discovering now that not merely domesticated animals but even wild animals can be friends. Did you hear of a recent book called, Fox & I – An Uncommon Friendship? Its author, Catherine Raven, claims that her best friend for several years was a wild fox, while she was living in an isolated cottage.
In this film Foster dives every day to see her – his octopus friend – and understand her world and her life.
Roger Horrocks, one of the world’s best underwater camera persons, intrigued by what Foster is doing, joins him with his camera. Amazed by what he sees, Foster keeps reading scientific journals and research papers on octopuses in order to understand what he sees in his daily trips to the depths of the sea. After learning that octopuses are nocturnal creatures, he begins to dive at night even though the water is bracingly cold.
Foster watches his friend hunting crabs and lobsters, as well as being hunted by pyjama sharks. He is amazed by her intelligence which she uses both to hunt her prey and to escape from her predator-shark – once by covering herself with shells and stones and at another time by sitting in a place where the shark cannot harm her – the shark’s own back.
She seems to be curious about him and initially suspicious of him. But she comes to trust that he does not pose any danger and one day she dares to rest on his hand. Another day she travels with him to the surface when he comes up for air.
One day a persistent shark chases her right up to her den, where she lives. In another encounter, bitten by a shark, she loses an arm. She retreats to her den to recuperate and in about three months her arm grows back! And she is once again her old, enthusiastic self. Something similar takes place in Foster’s life. His friendship with her heals him and he regains his energy and enthusiasm. He rebuilds his relationship with his son, takes him along when he goes diving and introduces his octopus friend.
Nearly ten months after he saw her, she meets a male octopus and mates. As a result she produces a large number of eggs. She stays in her den to hatch the eggs and while tending to them, slowly and quietly dies. A shark takes away her lifeless body. Female octopuses, we learn, live till they find someone to mate and create new life. Once this is done, they die. They live just for a year or so.
His friend’s life and death remind him that human life too is momentary and ephemeral. Foster realizes that she told him, “You are part of this place, you are not a visitor.” We are part of this place, just as they are. But how little we know about the creatures who share this planet with us! How little we care!
All those connected with the film are people who deeply care for our environment. I was gratified to learn that Craig Foster’s wife, Swati Thiyagarajan, is an Indian, born in Chennai. An environmental journalist, Swati, is the associate producer and production manager of the film. The two talented directors of the film, Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, are also conservationists. Craig Foster has founded the Sea Change Project, which aims at protecting the biodiversity of the kelp forest and the ocean.
The film’s universal appeal may be traced to several aspects of the film. First of all, it opens for you a new world – a world we know nothing about, a world we hardly ever think of – the world in the depths of the ocean.
Further, it was released by Netflix at a time when a deadly pandemic has forced a tragic disconnect between us and our fellow humans. We have lost our loved ones, we have been isolating and distancing ourselves from one another. Showing you the evolution of a surprising friendship between a human and an octopus, the film, during these dark, dreary days, subtly speaks of connection, empathy, belonging, healing, etc.
Even 18 months after the disastrous pandemic began, we don’t know why or how it began. Apart from the lab leak speculation, the most plausible explanation centers around how humans have dealt with wildlife. Wildlife have their own world – the wild, the forests – just as we have ours. Who gave humans the right to invade their God-given home, destroy forests and drive wild animals out of their habitat? Who gave the arrogant humans the right to hunt, kill, eat, and sell their flesh? If they keep doing this with impunity, then what can the corona virus which has lived in wild animals for years do – except to seek other habitats, other hosts? If their villainous predators – humans – keep destroying them and their world, won’t they incur the wrath of these animals as well as God, who created them? Craig Foster proposes a new way of life. As he does in this film, we can watch other species, get to know them, admire them and befriend them. We need to respect them, as he does, and let them live their lives in their own way, in their own world. Will the greedy, murderous humans embrace this new way of life? That’s the question.