La Sagesse de la Pieuvre is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished and enjoyable documentaries you will ever see. Nominated for the 2021 Oscars in the “Best Documentary” category, this film takes us on a journey to discover the seabed of South Africa. We follow South African documentary director Craig Foster. Having always lived in this country, he considers himself privileged and lucky to be the spectator of the raging painting of the Atlantic. The director is at that moment in full burn-out, and he suffers as much as he makes his family suffer. His various ailments cause him a severe lack of sleep. He questions many aspects of his life, including his role as a father. It is as a truly broken man that he then decides to dive back into this unique force of an ocean from which he had moved away, in order to find a certain fullness.
The first encounter with the octopus takes place in 2010 and the story continues for a year. She is covered in seashells and frightened, as much by this intruder as by this intrusion into her space. Foster then has the idea, which he also perceives as an experience, to return there every day. At first unsettled by the arrival of Foster, the animal gradually recognizes the man and, over the days, ends up making a place for him in its territory. This relationship leads the director towards a rediscovery of himself after painful moments. The animal is intrigued and curious. Foster refuses to wear an oxygen cylinder and a suit, as if to create pure contact. He does not want protection or barrier to be as close as possible to this animal and this foreign universe.
The original title is My Octopus Teacher (i.e. Ma Professeure Pieuvre / Mon Professeur Poulpe), And it is not a hazard. The meaning takes on its full meaning at the end of the documentary, when we see all that the octopus has brought to man, both in terms of knowledge and discoveries, as well as in human terms. It is above all the story of an improbable – not to say almost impossible – relationship between a man and an octopus, where each learns from the other. It’s understandable to be skeptical when watching the first few minutes of the documentary, but quickly Foster manages to make us understand that the octopus, like almost any animal, recognizes and attaches itself to us, despite more than limited communication. This same communication which passes through gestures and touch, which are indicative of the progression of attachment.
But the relationship is a reflection of their difference, and is never fully acquired. More than once, the octopus gets scared in the face of avoidable mistakes on Foster’s part – dropping a target, or gesturing too abruptly – that are enough to frighten him.
A moving viewing
This documentary is also an opportunity to take a look of peace and serenity on this underwater world. We almost forget that the octopus is an animal, we perceive only two intelligent beings who have found each other and a link, to say the least, astonishing. We remember that we are powerless in the face of this giving nature, and it is impossible to feel great and powerful when we are immersed – literally and figuratively – in an ocean that keeps reminding us that we are not not on their own.
Foster does not hide it: “I fell in love with her” he admits, after more than two months of diving, “but also with this place that she represented”. This frequentation and this immersion in a universe that is not his transforms him, and allows him to understand a lot of things about his own relationships and his life. It is through these links, almost sentimental, that he discovers a meaning to his existence; when the softness of this discreet everyday companion takes precedence over the low points.
Despite a side that is perhaps a little too melodramatic (especially with almost omnipresent and somewhat heavy music in the long run), this documentary is a great questioning of our place in the world and puts us back on the ground. Foster is reborn and sleeps again … but to dream of the octopus: “I thought like an octopus!” This rediscovery of nature brings him closer to his son, from whom he was so afraid to stray. They now share this love of diving and underwater wildlife. Since this meeting, more than a decade ago now, Foster created the Sea Change Project, in order to connect people to nature.