I just watched the Academy Award–winning documentary My Octopus Teacher. It is a remarkable film and story. Like many documentaries, I wondered how many hours of filming were required to make this beautiful piece as well as who did some of the filming. I often want a documentary about the documentary I have just watched, but this time, at least, I will never know.
I saw the film on Netflix. Even in a non-Covid year it’s unlikely that I would have seen it in a movie theater. I seldom watch a feature-length documentary anywhere other than on my own TV. On the other hand, this past year I missed seeing the various Oscar-nominated shorts that in past years I would have seen at a local movie palace. The animated, live-action, and documentary shorts get packaged together and are shown in “art” houses in the weeks before the Academy Awards ceremony. Not this year, of course, so I did not see any of the nominees in these categories, but perhaps that’s just as well. These short films, even the animated ones, are often touching, and routinely sad, unless they are about war, and then they are both sad and horrifying. This past year, in particular, I have tried to avoid books, movies, and TV that were likely to make me feel even worse about the world than I already did.
My Octopus Teacher, happily, is a movie that produces wonder. The octopus that is the focus of the film even had, bringing to mind Richard Starkey’s lyric, “A little hideaway/ beneath the waves/ resting its head/ on the seabed.”
This wonderous documentary about inner space made me think not only about the Beatles but also about outer space and our obsession with it. We look up at the night sky, and like all who have preceded us, we naturally wonder about what we see. Humans apparently have always speculated about the moon and the stars, the sun and the planets. We want to explore what is out there. We want lunar and Mars missions. Humanity has spent untold riches and risked fire and death in such endeavors. And we don’t stop. The Swedes are now building a spaceport in the Arctic, and many countries have been sending up rockets and satellites. We even have private ventures, although the commercial possibilities of space other than as a weird tourist attraction seem limited—at least to me. (Am I alone in being able to live happily without another scent of Elon Musk?) Space fascinates; we long to reach for the stars.
We don’t have similar clichéd, inspirational injunctions about the seas. We did have Jacques Cousteau who tried, like My Octopus Teacher, to tell us that we have a lot to learn about this water-covered planet. Sometimes it seems that our only concerns about the oceans are whether we can grab all the fish out of it, build wind farms above it, or find oil beneath it.
In showing how much we can learn about the octopus, the film reveals how much we are in the dark about the oceanic depths, a place of beauty and wonder as well as commercial enterprise. We have manned orbiting space stations and fantasize about colonizing the moon and Mars. Why don’t we have something comparable for under the water?