There weren’t many major surprises at the 93rd Academy Awards. The films that we expected to do well did so. History was made in a few key categories, and nothing for Aaron Sorkin, bye. One category, however, proved to have a surprising trajectory throughout the campaigning season.
Best Documentary Feature had a lot of big hitters vying for the trophy this year. Apple TV+ bet big on the Sundance hit Boys State. All In: The Fight for Democracy followed Stacey Abrams’ battle against voter suppression and felt like an ideal nominee in an election year. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets reimagined the traditional documentary as a provocative ensemble piece. Dick Johnson Is Dead drove us all to tears as Kirsten Johnson have her own father a meta-fictional send-off. Yet none of these beloved titles were even nominated. Somehow, the surprise nominee became the frontrunner and took home the Oscar. How did Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher get here?
My Octopus Teacher follows a South African filmmaker named Craig Foster as he decided to essentially ditch his own family to have a midlife crisis on the Cape Peninsula with an octopus. Foster spends 85 minutes regaling audiences with the tale of how he formed an indelible bond with this creature, becoming incredible friends and maybe kind-of lovers. No, he doesn’t f**k the octopus, but he does describe their dynamic in very romantic terms. The documentary seemed to find its audience organically through access on Netflix and became a much-discussed Twitter topic. There were ‘monster-f**ker’ jokes a-plenty and viewers seemed truly moved by this man’s relationship with nature. I personally really do not like this film, and by the looks of it, many fellow critics weren’t wild about this win, sharing frustration on social media.
Critics didn’t hate the film but in comparison to nominees like Collective and Time, it could not help but feel like a lightweight. This is standard stuff for the Academy in this category. Frequently, the pricklier, more politically radical or complex documentaries are overlooked in favor of palatable fare that’s easy to categorize. Consider how, for example, the glitzy musical documentary 20 Feet from Stardom beat the startlingly original and immensely difficult The Act of Killing, or cutesy animal fare like March of the Penguins beating films on Enron, colorism in American politics, and disability. That’s not to say that this is a uniform voting tactic or that the wins are undeserving, but it’s a reminder that, for all the bells and whistles and claims of high elitism, the Academy’s brows are thoroughly middle.
My Octopus Teacher wants to sell the story of this incredible moment where man meets nature and common ground is found. A human finds himself through the magic of a common octopus, while the animal… well, actually, we don’t really know what they’re supposed to get from it. This is all about the homo sapien who doesn’t want to raise his own kid or be around his wife because he’s too busy projecting his emotional nonsense onto an animal. Foster talks about the wonders of the oceans but seems blind to the true power of the sea. For him, it’s just another playground for a mid-life crisis, and the filmmakers seem utterly uninterested in interrogating him as a subject. The result is a surface-level film that reinforces a lot of messy notions about the natural world and its creatures as conduits for human drivel.
In an essay for the London Review of Books, Professor Amia Srinivasan notes that the octopus is probably ‘the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.’ They are animals so wholly unlike humans in every conceivable way, harder to anthropomorphize than, say, your pet cat or the majestic horse in the field by your house. Yet for Foster, this octopus he encounters becomes overburdened with the weight of his Disney-esque expectations for its awareness of him and the relationship he craves. Foster bends over backward to humanize this creature as his feminine companion. It’s not just that this animal has to be anthropomorphized: they have to be specifically gendered in order to satisfy his fantasy of the ultimate bond. He is so eager to believe that this octopus, whose life he keeps f**king up to the point where they lose a limb, is grateful for his presence, that they need him as much as he’s grown to become dependent on their imagined love.
The result is a condescending reduction of the wonders of nature to its usefulness as a foundation for human meddling. The octopus itself is denied the incredible complexities of its species, ones that could fill hours’ worth of documentary footage. We desperately want to believe that animals like this can sense our love and reciprocate in some manner because that seems to be the primary way that humans communicate with the wild. I’m not denying the ability to have a bond with an animal. Any pet owner can tell you the wonders of your dog or cat or bird and the joy they bring to your life. What Foster claims, however, doesn’t make sense. The science proves that.
Foster’s mid-life crisis and his near abandonment of his family is something worth interrogating. There’s a great documentary in here that’s willing to examine the emotional complexity of a man forcing a human-esque identity onto an utterly alien sea creature in order to process his own issues. There’s something to be said about this man’s occasionally unnerving molding of an identity for an animal that has no interest in him. They are his manic pixie dream girl, and that’s a common identity that humanity shoves onto nature.
We should question the ways that we reduce animals to their usefulness for our own species and how that impacts the world around us. Their proximity to relatable human behavior or our ideas of so-called normalcy is something that scientists have tried to break down for decades. Still, it seems the simplistic emotional bait of My Octopus Teacher is what a lot of people want from their nature documentaries. It’s more palatable for us to imagine that an octopus loves a human than for us to accept that they should never have to even encounter one another to be worthy of our respect and awe.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.