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Oscar-winning ‘Octopus Teacher’ tells compelling story with cinematic magic

For the first time in three decades, I did not watch the Oscars this year; yet I still found myself inextricably attached to the ceremony, since friends and I cued up “My Octopus Teacher” instead — a film that won Best Documentary right around the time we finished watching it.

And while I don’t put much stock in the Academy’s choices anymore, that award was well deserved.

This 2020 Netflix doc tells the utterly compelling story of Craig Foster, a documentary filmmaker who, having reached a point of total burn-out, sought a way to recharge — eventually committing to a daily swim in the cold and surging ocean near his home on the South African coast.

And when I say cold, I mean as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit; how Foster did this every day without a wetsuit is something I still can’t wrap my head around.

In any case, the intrepid naturalist soon became fascinated with a football-sized female octopus, whom he first encountered inside a surreal-looking sphere of seashells — a protective covering she’d amassed as a defense against predators.

Over the ensuing year, Foster returned to her hunting ground every single day, working slowly and cautiously to gain the creature’s trust.

The scene in which she finally reaches out a tentative tentacle and lays it curiously on Foster’s forearm is just one of many moving moments in this movie. Foster himself found it much more significant when the cephalopod finally came completely out of her den, allowing him to watch her hunt, swim, play — and of course, camouflage herself in every undersea color imaginable. (This well-known octopus habit is, incidentally, all the more remarkable because these creatures are actually color-blind!)

While “My Octopus Teacher” runs a swift and enthralling 85 minutes, it took Foster and his team — including directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed — more than eight years to weed through hundreds of hours of footage; and the result is sheer cinematic magic.

Though it was necessarily filmed with small handheld cameras — and most of the material was shot by Foster alone — the photography is gorgeous, fleshed out with some handsome overhead drone shots and supported by a subtle but effective musical score by Kevin Smuts.

As you may have guessed, the “teacher” part of the title refers to the creature’s healing effect on Foster and how much she showed him about survival, adaptation and the fragility of life.

Speaking of which: Viewers are warned that the common octopus has a life-span of only 18 months and generally dies after mating and laying eggs.

Foster also learned an enormous amount about ocean habitat, including the discovery of eight new shrimp species, one of which lives right in the den with its octopus host.

I’ll admit I’m behind in reviewing this film — but then, even if you’ve seen it, I’ll wager you still read this whole review, just because you loved the movie so much.

Like its titular suction-cupped subject, it grabs hold and won’t let go.

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