In the hands of an occupational hygienist, the combination of light and a fluid medium is a scientific tool to demonstrate the flow of vapours, the way aerosols hang suspended in the air, tiny particles that linger and drift, hovering like miasmas. When the gaseous medium of air is freighted with moisture, light makes air visible, revealing it as dense and saturated. This sudden revelation brings into sharp relief the normally unseen residues that we share with those around us each time we breathe and speak – potentially lethal fluid vectors of contamination. However, if we step back from the anxiety this revelation might induce, we can see this demonstration as a key to understanding how an encounter between linear streams of light and meandering fractals of a fluid medium is at the core of some of the most exquisite and enlivening aesthetic experiences in contemporary culture.
Cinematographers love this encounter of light and fluid. When light strikes water, its beams are disassembled, fractured, dispersed, and bounced around in an exuberant dance with the drifting, swirling, wavering aqueous world, producing a cinematic image that seethes and shimmers with luminous movement and energy. This may sound like mere aesthetic fetishism, but light and movement are tools of trade for cinematographers – magicians of light – and this is how we are drawn into a close sensory engagement with the cinematic image, how we become immersed in a full-bodied affective cinematic experience.
The makers of the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher are well versed in the power of this volatile combination. The film traces the gradual absorption of naturalist–filmmaker Craig Foster into the briny world of an octopus. Most of the film is shot underwater as we follow Foster, a freediver who becomes increasingly adept in this watery world, his breathing lengthening, his languid movements ever more liquescent as he glides through the water.
In our first encounters with the octopus, we are already primed to the experience of this floating world freed from gravity. From the first moments of the film, as the camera takes us into the muted light of the kelp forest, it is the rhythmic combination of movement, water, and light that evokes this corporeal engagement. The pre-credit sequence, a virtuoso play with rhythm, lulls us into the hypnotic movement of the kelp as it sways, almost dancing in the wash, the body of the diver as he drifts in sync, the streamlined glide of the octopus, and the sudden explosion of energy as the octopus morphs into a ferocious torpedo. As the octopus pounces on its prey in a lightning-strike, its bulbous body swelling to engulf its prey in its membranous mantle, a whirlwind of tentacles spews up a tornado of sand that fills the screen in a spray of tiny ricocheting particles of light. As the diver resurfaces from the deep, we are drawn once more into the rhythm of his breathing. Bubbles – those ingenious triplets, water, air, and light – fill the screen, bringing us in close in an effervescent rush as he finally exhales and takes a gasp of air. Just as we become immersed again in the experience of a moving, breathing body, the camera spirals up to a drone shot that reveals the diver as a tiny figure afloat in a viridian expanse of dappled, flickering light.
Much of the critical debate around My Octopus Teacher, since its release in late 2020, has focused on questions of anthropomorphism, challenging certain moments in the narration that project the diver’s emotional interpretations onto the octopus, and, while acknowledging its observational insights into the life of a cephalopod, taking issue with the allegedly eroticised, gendered connotations of the diver’s attraction to the octopus. However, as pertinent as these debates may be in an environmental documentary such as this, the achievement of the film eludes these responses: it uses the full resources of the cinematic medium to lure us into a profound fascination with the extraordinary octopus and its complex ecosystem.
This film is not just a story about an inter-species encounter with an octopus – it produces an analogous cinematic encounter for the viewer. It draws us, inexorably, into the fascination of the diver as he watches and learns, and into an approximation of his experience as he gets closer, more connected. To be sure, we don’t get to entwine our fingers with the tentacles of the octopus as Foster does, to have her suckers feel their way tentatively around the contours of our face, or to nestle her slippery spirals against our naked skin. Nevertheless, we are lured into the closest possible visual equivalent to this tactile fascination. This is not a detached, distanced stare. My Octopus Teacher produces a way of looking, mediated through the wonder of the diver, that could best be described as looking with soft eyes.
In part this is achieved through the kinaesthetic pleasure of watching the octopus move. Just as the diver and clearly also the co-cinematographer, directors, and editor were totally absorbed in watching this incredible creature, we too are immersed in her shape-shifting movement, dazzling fluctuating colours and textures, curiosity, and prodigious strategising as she hunts and is hunted. We don’t need to know that this creature is an invertebrate to note in astonishment how this body can swell and shrink, spread out or shoot off in a streamlined jet spewing ink behind. We don’t need to understand that seventy-five per cent of the octopus’s brain is spread out across her eight tentacles to be amazed by her extraordinarily articulate, sensing, searching limbs, or to become engrossed in recognising such luminous intelligence in a species so alien to our own.
At an almost apocalyptic moment in the film, a shark seizes the octopus in its jaws and starts to thrash the creature around in a terrifying death roll. Foster has to surface for more air; when he descends into the depths, the creature has miraculously escaped the predator’s grip and is now riding on the shark’s back, out of reach, a Houdini act of salvation that makes the shark look like a dumb blockhead compared to the ingenious, quick-witted cephalopod.
Despite claims by some critics that Foster’s narration eroticises the octopus, when it comes to witnessing the actual mating, Foster’s narration is matter of fact. He describes this moment as the beginning of the end, the pathway to imminent death that inevitably follows the breeding cycle and birthing of the offspring. This is in stark contrast to that other famous anthropomorphic eroticisation of a cephalopod, The Love Life of an Octopus, made by naturalist and surrealist filmmaker Jean Painlevé in 1967. Painlevé embellishes his account of an amorous exchange with florid dramatic narration, recounting with great panache and almost breathless excitement the build-up of anticipation, the initial approach and rejection, the tango of the two around each other as the male turns white with fear at the ever-present risk of being strangled and eaten by the female, and the eventual arduous consummation that continues ‘for hours, sometimes days’.
In the scientific literature, there are accounts of one species of octopus – the larger Pacific striped octopus – that mates face to face, beak to beak, spreading out all sixteen tentacles together – eight apiece – apparently lining them up sucker to sucker. From an anthropomorphic perspective, we could say that, despite all its curiosity and inventiveness and all those intelligent arms, Foster’s octopus – the common octopus – lacks the erotic imagination to explore this exuberant polymorphous potential, coupling in a more mundane way, one modified male arm reaching into one of the breathing orifices of the female.
Painlevé gives us an account of an octopus that is grotesque, repulsive in its radical difference from us. In their collaboration with Foster, the directors of My Octopus Teacher, Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, have elicited our fascination with this combination of likeness and difference in a different register. Deploying all of the mesmerising aesthetic resources of underwater cinematography, their film evokes the mnemonic traces we carry deep in our own bodies’ rhythms of our early development afloat in a watery sac. This evokes a much more profound sense of connection with the octopus and awakens in viewers an appreciation of the complex ecosystem of the South African kelp forest she inhabits. Harvesting this awareness has been essential to their development of the Sea Change Project, a collective endeavour to protect this endangered environment, ‘the only forest of giant bamboo kelp on our planet’, which they describe as ‘vastly richer than the Great Barrier Reef’ in its endemic species. They describe their goal in this project to create ‘a movement of emotional ecology, where people feel a meaningful connection to wild places and the animals that live in them’.
If a slight tendency to anthropomorphism fosters this goal, so be it.