14 Oct 2020

Pippa Ehrlich: The joy of filming My Octopus Teacher

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 14 October 2020

A filmmaker behind hit Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher says New Zealand movie Whale Rider helped shape its content.

The touching doco follows underwater cameraman Craig Foster diving off the coast of the Western Cape of South Africa and narrates a unique relationship that developed between him and a cephalopod curious about his daily visits.

Foster was suffering depression caused by burn-out at the time. He had lost his love for his job, until his chance encounter with the octopus in an enchanting kelp forest.

Co-director Pippa Ehrlich tells Jesse Mulligan Niki Caro's 2002 movie Whale Rider was used as a reference point when she discussed the direction the movie should take with Foster.

“That was one of the first things I showed him. There are themes in there about the power of women and what our gender roles are, but more than that it’s this idea of this ancient connection that human beings have with the wild and finding ways of exploring and expressing that, because very few people in the modern world make time in the day so connect with nature.”

Foster had forced himself back into the water, battling swell and coldness to reach the kelp forest he wanted to explore. It became a special place he would be magnetically drawn back to every morning to observe the octopus, which gradually showed signs of inquisitiveness, trust and connection.

Ehrlich got involved in the project about three-and-a-half years ago after she approached Foster over interest in his work and how he had learned to adapt his body to the freezing-cold water temperatures.

They dived together for six months as she learned his techniques. During this time he revealed a desire to share his story.

“He’d figured out that he was ready and that this was the film he wanted to make," she says.

Foster had shot footage over the best part of a year, every day and for most of the octopus' short life span. It was her job to help piece it all together as a documentary.

“It took about three months just to go through the material and figure out what our story was and how we were going to tell it.”

Ehrlich was a natural choice to direct the film. A marine science and conservation journalist familiar with how a story like Foster's could be presented to a mass audience, she had already made a number of short films.

But she had another advantage over other potential suitors. “Something a little more basic was the fact that he wanted to make this film with no wet suits and no scuba gear and I was pretty much the only person in his orbit at that point who could stay in the water for as long as he could without a wet suit.”

Ehrlich never imagined the project would end up a massive hit on Netflix. For her it was a labour of love, a project she felt compelled to take up.

“Craig sent me a treatment and I was sitting at my desk in my very cushy NGO job and I read this treatment and I just started crying. I felt that if something resonated with me so deeply, how could I say no.”

The kelp forest was a magical adventure for her and diving with Craig without oxygen or a wet suit had been an eye opener. She was hooked from the start.

“From that very first dive with Craig I realised that I was missing 90 percent of what was going on.

“It was like putting on a pair of magical goggles and I saw animals that I didn’t know existed, I saw behaviours that I never imagined were possible and we managed to approach animals and get close to them in a way that I’ve never dreamed of.”

The physiological response of the body to the cold, the sudden rush of endorphins and sense of vigour, added to the experience.

One of the behaviours that blow her away was the first time she saw the octopus trust Foster enough to touch his hand.

“It speaks to this idea that an octopus’ life is all about the conflict between fear and curiosity and that was a theme we worked on through the film, the fact that they are afraid and they’re very, very vulnerable, that they need to be careful, but they’re also highly intelligent and they like to be entertained.”

Fosters’ daily visits to its lair and the familiarity of having a safe creature around offered the octopus entertainment, she says.

Enrilich says the connection between human and octopus is striking too because humans evolved from the sea into the most neurologically complex land-based mammals on Earth. Octopuses went the opposite evolutionary direction, remaining invertebrates and the most neurologically complex creatures of the oceans.

“We’re on opposite ends of the evolutionary tree, but somehow there seem to be things we can relate to with one another,” she says.

Foster, during his interview in the documentary, says the octopus taught him the most profound lessons on what it means to be human and part of the natural order.

“She taught him all sorts of things that he was desperately trying to understand… about acceptance and trust, about where we fit in the natural world and I think one of the biggest things that he learnt was that there are really no ‘others’, because every creature that lives on that Earth is relatable to us on some level.

“Every single animal, and probably every single plant, that we share are world with has a very complex life, full of drama and excitement. They are having an experience, just like we are.”

There is no overt conservation message or theme in the movie, but the need to avert total ecological catastrophe is felt through what the film reveals - the intrinsic value of our connections with nature, she says. In losing species, we in effect lose a part of ourselves. But there had been heated debate among the production team about this approach.

“I worried if we did go down the conventional road of ‘this is what’s happening to our planet’ and ‘this is why human beings need to change’ then that message would end up overwhelming that sense of awe, wonder and connection… I feel the approach we took was the right one.”

She says it is a film that invites us to reassess our relationship with the natural world and re-establish a sense of reverence and reciprocity.

“As our lives have sped up and we’ve moved further and further away from that we have lost our connection and it’s had very, very bad impacts on us and the animals and plants we share this planet with.”

Other connections Foster made with sea creatures didn’t make it past the cutting room.

“One of the really amazing scenes we would have loved to have included was an encounter he had with a giant stingray,” Ehrlich says.

“He was swimming behind the stingray and it was actually the same species that killed Steve Irwin. They are very gentle animals but very dangerous.

“At one point the stingray turned around and headed straight towards him. He was staying very, very still in the water column and it came over him and covered his whole body with its wings and quietly moved off.”

One problem encountered making the film was interviewing Foster. Enrlich knew Foster’s story, so interviewing him just didn’t work. Experienced film-maker James Read came on board to do so and his involvement as co-director also gave more weight and authenticity to the project, she says.

After getting a number of rejections, Netflix took the film. The response of the public, young and old, has been striking.

“I think it is quite special to find a film that is as engaging for adults as it is for children,” she says.

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