Craig Foster’s Oscar-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, did everything a documentary should do. Beautifully filmed, it followed a clear narrative and gave a generalist audience scientific information mixed alongside a real-life character arch. How could anyone object to such a film? Pippa Bailey in The New Statesman does just that.
She starts by mocking Foster’s friendship with the octopus: ‘“I remember that day when it all started…” Foster intones, as though it’s the start of a romcom; the music swells when she reaches for his hand.’ Bailey fails to point out that he never gave the octopus a name and throughout the film elucidates the biology and behaviour of the octopus in ways that obviously distinguish it from human. Example: he informs us that most of the octopus’s cognition is in their arms.
Bailey goes on the attack of Foster’s approach to his subject: ‘Foster imagines the octopus as being like “a human friend”, waving to say, “Hi, I’m excited to see you”; he can feel her trust for him, he says, her invitation into her world. He wonders what she’s thinking, what she dreams about.’
Reading this, I couldn’t help but to think about the way people interact with their dogs and cats, treating them very much like human friends. When dogs behave in ways akin to the human for ‘excited to see you’ it’s because we have trained them to behave like that with stimuli of food, petting and playful exercise. As for cats, who display limited understanding of humans, we talk to them as if they care and when it’s bleeding obvious that they don’t care, we praise them for their independence. Furthermore, the therapeutic value of having pets is well documented. According to QI, the act of cuddling a dog can relieve stress for up to six months after the cuddle. Given that Foster points out at the start of the film that he was at a crossroads, unproductive as a film-maker and troubled by this in a way that sounded like a mid-life crisis wrapped in depression, this therapy was needed.
Having said all of this, I do think Bailey makes some cogent points. She notes: ‘There are, to my mind, two extremes in documentaries about animals: those that present the animal kingdom as separate from people, their only human presence David Attenborough’s narration (other presenters are available); and those, such as Tiger King or the masterful Blackfish, that document an overly close relationship between humans and animals: obsessive, intrusive. My Octopus Teacher doesn’t go that far…’ Bailey goes on to say, ‘Animals are not there for us, to be treated as commodities or companions as we see fit; to be reduced to their usefulness to us. Nature does not exist to alleviate our restless emptiness, much as it may do so.’ I agree with that, and Tiger King was at times hard watching for these reasons – profit motive and self-aggrandisement reigned supreme (pun intended). But I don’t think that Foster’s documentary erred in these ways. In the end it was clear that animals have their own, often cruel, life cycles that we humans need to give space for by not continuing to destroy our natural environment.
Bailey’s conclusion: ‘Must we view an octopus as a friend, a saviour, a teacher? Couldn’t we simply settle for not eating them?’
My conclusion: An octopus can be a friend, a saviour, a teacher, or simply something of the natural world to marvel at. But whatever you do, don’t eat them.