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From My Octopus Teacher (2020), dir. Pippa Ehrlich & James Reed (photo courtesy Netflix)

Social media is choked with inspirational viral photos and videos of unusual animal friendships, but My Octopus Teacher is something very different. A year-long diary about one man and one octopus, it’s full of genuine wonder about the natural world, and frames the central relationship in terms that go beyond the mere “Aww, that’s cute!” response.

In 2010, suffering severe burnout, nature filmmaker Craig Foster took to freediving amidst the kelp forests in the frigid waters off South Africa. There he met and gradually befriended a female octopus, visiting her every day until she felt comfortable playing with him. He took to filming her and also installed remote cameras around her territory, capturing some astonishing footage of her fighting pyjama sharks, hunting crabs, and just exploring. Through observing and interacting with her, Foster gained a new, awed understanding of both nature and nonhuman intelligence — a sensation conveyed to the viewer in the way directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed shape Foster’s footage into a narrative.

WARNING: Octopuses don’t live that long. Yes, the octopus dies, and yes, you will cry. Prepare accordingly.

My Octopus Teacher is available to stream on Netflix.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. He is studying in the masters program at Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, Germany. You can find his all his links and public profiles here.