Why ‘My Octopus Teacher’ Is the Best Film of 2020

Christopher Karr


A new Netflix documentary called My Octopus Teacher brought to mind a fragment of a quote I had long forgotten: “Turn it and turn it — it contains everything.” But I couldn’t remember the source of the quote. Was it from some obscure literary criticism I read years ago? Did it refer to Ulysses? Was it something Harold Bloom wrote about Moby Dick?


As I watched this new documentary, running through the full scope of human emotions during its brisk 85-minute running time, that phrase was recalled from some dim hallway of my memory because it illustrated exactly what the documentary captures. My Octopus Teacher might be the best movie released during a historically disastrous year for film. It reminded me that the theatrical experience I’ve been locked out of for the majority of 2020 isn’t necessarily required in order to have a transcendent confrontation with an incredible story.


Indeed, My Octopus Teacher contains the entirety of human experience — the beauty and terror of life — and it conveys the narrative through a lens of crystalline simplicity. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.


The story is so straightforward, and yet the complexities multiply. The documentary details a relationship so unexpected and curious and unfathomable. It sounds ridiculous, but this masterpiece shows how one man (Craig Foster) manages to establish a genuine friendship — a kind of love affair, really — with an octopus in the waters of a kelp forest at the tip of Southern Africa.



At first, Foster is just as astonished as the viewer. After all, he didn’t venture into the water seeking a new friend. Who would? But Foster, a filmmaker by profession, was in the middle of a crisis and he was vaguely looking for something he couldn’t define; he was adrift and lost, and that prolonged dark night of the soul led him into the ice cold ocean, a place which had always given him comfort.


At a certain point, Foster comes across an octopus behaving in a strangely un-octopus way. The moment nags at him; he has to know more. As his journey becomes more astonishing and profound, he learns that he, like the viewer, had no idea about the unimaginable intelligence and, well, sheer humanity that an octopus can exhibit.


What follows is a story stranger than fiction and wilder than reality. Most impressively, it unfolds in front of the camera. Moments of unforeseen magic appear onscreen; snapshots of life that would have gone undocumented otherwise. It’s a true feat of filmmaking that this movie exists. Prepare yourself for a distilled portrait of the cycle of life — by turns brutal, brilliant, bold, breathtaking.


I finally tracked down the source of the quote I slightly misremembered. It’s from Cynthia Ozick’s superb analysis of the Book of Job. She writes: “The lavishness, the extravagance, the infinitude! An infinitude of power; an infinitude of joy; an infinitude of love…God’s ode to Creation could not be richer. Turn it and turn it — God’s ode: everything is in it.”



There’s nothing religious about My Octopus Teacher, nor is there anything inherently religious in Ozick’s essay. And yet, this dissection of God’s speech to Job strikes at the heart of the documentary, which is itself an ode to the heartbreaking unbelievability of nature, the splendor and genius that can be found in the darkest, unseen crevices of the world. And Foster emerges as a kind of Job — initially lost but, in the end, renewed – self-rediscovered after an existential battle wages within his soul and psyche.


In this version of the Job story, God’s voice doesn’t appear from the whirlwind. Instead, from the craggy, kelp-covered depths, an octopus reveals itself to have a God-like intelligence and a humanity one would imagine unthinkable. My Octopus Teacher blissfully blasts away at any common preconceived notions you might have about human-animal relationships. It’s a remarkable film.


Author Bio:

Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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