There’s not a lot of easy viewing selections from this year’s Oscar nominees. Even the deliciously enjoyable revenge drama “Promising Young Woman” has scenes I imagine would turn the squeamish among us off. So thank God for this little Netflix documentary called “My Octopus Teacher.” The 85-minute tale of a filmmaker whose life is changed by an octopus he meets in a kelp forest just won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards early last week.
The thing has clearly escaped people’s eyes for a long time—it’s been, uhm, floating on the Netflix menu since September. But you know naman the crazy amount of choices in that streaming giant. After a while, titles blend into each other and you end up watching “Friends” again. Of course, “My Octopus Teacher” is, ironically, also about friendship—or at least that is what some people say it is.
Not being a fan of Nat Geo-type stuff, I doubted I would see the doc through to the very end but it’s just the kind of content one takes in on weekend breaks: easily digestible, packed with visuals that will hook you in, a couple of fantastic chase scenes, and a story arc that leads to the triumph of the human spirit, only this time with a little nudge from a tentacled cephalopod.
The film is narrated throughout by the filmmaker-diver Craig Foster who, in the beginning of the story, relates the depression that followed the success of his previous documentary. For a long period, he didn’t know what to do with himself, had no idea how to dive back to work—which eventually pushed him to dive first back into the ocean, sans oxygen tank and a wetsuit.
While exploring the kelp forest one day, he encounters his future subject. Curiously, of all the trippy, spectacularly colorful ocean creatures we’re shown onscreen, it is with an ordinary octopus Foster gets drawn to. Of course, it turns out she isn’t so ordinary, after all (yes, it’s a she), as Foster convinces us, peeling off layer after layer of this eight-limbed mollusk’s character.
To begin with, she’s extraordinarily anti-social—pushed by circumstances to live life on the run, constantly hiding, ducking underneath rocks, changing her looks, just to keep from being gobbled up alive by pajama sharks in constant pursuit of her and her kind. And then there’s her second cruel reality: she spends her whole life trying to preserve herself only to give it all away as soon as she takes on motherhood. It’s a terribly sad life. It’s almost as if she wants a young Sophia Loren to play her in a spin-off.
The tragedy of the octopus’ existence opens Foster’s eyes to the reality that, in and out of the water, life is tough. Whether you’re a mollusk dealing with the circle of life in the ocean or a filmmaker undergoing a post-success crash, there’s no escape. Which ultimately brings the once broken, formerly directionless Foster to wake up again to the rest of the world around him. There’s his son, for example, growing up with a real interest in the ocean. Does Foster plan on missing this chance of reconnecting with his child and guiding him into a world he knows so much about?
It’s easy to see why many Pinoys are falling in love with this documentary. We all love a good human-and-his-pet story. It’s light, it’s heartwarming, it’s only an hour and 25 minutes. The title alone sounds like a Dolphy movie. The struggles of the two characters are clear from the beginning, as are the conclusions of their individual stories. Foster paints such a great portrait of the octopus that we end up rooting for her despite the fact there’s an actual human onscreen, a thousand times her size and given almost equal screen time. (“How can I eat Pulpo a la Gallega again?!” asked a friend after watching the film. “With a bottle of wine as prelude,” I answered.) It’s also an inspirational film, especially if you look at it as this story of a lost human seeing himself in and gaining back his purpose through this sea animal.
Just don’t come looking for a film about friendship, even if Netflix tells you that’s what this is. Because last time we checked, stalking is no longer kosher when one seeks to make friends. Also, if your filmmaker “friend” is more interested in getting footage of you than saving you from the fangs of a pajama shark, he better award you the distribution rights, or at least a share of the profits. If you’re going to end up as someone’s dinner, your name in the title will no longer cut it.
Photos from IMDB