It was such an unlikely hit. A quiet nature documentary shot by naturalist and filmmaker Craig Foster in his backyard — a lush kelp forest in False Bay, South Africa, teeming with marine life — and depicting his yearlong encounter with a cephalopod. The 2020 Netflix release “My Octopus Teacher” became a viral sensation, a critical darling, and an Oscar winner. But the question remains: Why?
For many it was likely the perfect pandemic-era antidote: a feel-good, otherworldly escape from a horrific year. But for others, including a number of scholars who took part in a recent virtual Harvard talk, the film’s appeal has as much to do with its emotional weight, the allure of its unlikely, nonhuman star, and the filmmaker’s perseverance.
Burned out by his work and suffering from depression, Foster explains early in the film that he was seeking a way to recharge and reconnect with his family when he started free diving near his home. It was during one of his first excursions that he spotted the octopus. “Then I had this crazy idea,” he tells an off-camera interviewer. “What happens if I just went every day?”
That persistence and his ability to track and follow an animal in the wild, particularly in a marine environment, struck neuroscientist David Edelman, a visiting scholar at Dartmouth who is researching visual perception, cognition, and their neural bases in the octopus. Edelman offered his comments during a wide-ranging discussion about the film on Monday, sponsored by Harvard’s Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative and moderated by Harvard Law School Professor Kristen Stilt, who also directs the School’s Animal Law & Policy Program.
Following an animal like that in the wild, particularly in the ocean, is “extraordinarily rare,” said Edelman, adding that such a feat proved challenging for even the great marine biologist Jacques Cousteau. “Unless you have some sort of tracking device, it’s going to be very difficult.” (Foster notes in the documentary that he honed his tracking skills while in the Kalahari Desert on another film project where he met “some of the best trackers in the world.”)
Alex Schnell, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s psychology department who studies intelligence in cephalopods, said she was impressed with Foster’s perspective on “this intimate interaction” with an animal known for being antisocial. Foster brings a “new perspective to this animal without a backbone that one might think you wouldn’t normally relate to … you can’t help feeling really emotional throughout the entire film, and I think that makes it really special, the intimacy of the whole interaction,” said Schnell.