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Hit South African documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’ cements Netflix’s foothold in Africa

By Romain Chanson
Posted on Friday, 23 April 2021 19:04

The Netflix film "My Octopus Teacher" by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, won a BAFTA for best documentary on 11 April. © Netflix

Big cats are notably absent from the animal documentary My Octopus Teacher.

Set in False Bay, near Cape Town but far from the game reserves home to South Africa’s Big Five animals – lions, leopards, Cape buffaloes, rhinoceros and elephants. A shy member of the cephalopod family – an octopus – has somehow stolen the limelight from the furry animals so revered in Disney films.

“A lot of people say an octopus is like an alien. But the strange thing is, as you get closer to them, you realise that we’re very similar in a lot of ways,” narrates Craig Foster, in the opening of the film.

Always a camera by his side

Suffering from burnout and depression, Craig went diving every day – sans wetsuit or an oxygen tank – in the freezing, turbulent Atlantic waters. In 2015, while free-diving in the vast Great African Sea Forest, known for its kelp forests housing diverse ecosystems, he came across an octopus that changed his life. He observed the octopus with fascination, eventually resolving to return every day so that he could spend time with the creature and document her short life.

“In the beginning, Craig had no intention of turning his footage into a documentary,” says Pippa Ehrlich, the film’s co-director. “He’s just this naturalist who loves capturing his experiences with nature. Everywhere he goes, he always has his camera by his side because that’s how he understands the world and what he loves to do. He knew that his story with the octopus was very powerful.”

Pippa, who, like Craig, is a Cape Town-based free diver, got involved in the project in 2017, with James Reed following suit one year later. It was hardly overkill to have two directors work on a film that had been shot over eight years and accumulated 3,000 hours of footage.

On top of the material Craig filmed on his own, he worked with his friend Roger Horrocks, an ace underwater cameraman whose cinematographic credits include the BBC-produced documentary Blue Planet II and Netflix’s Our Planet, to shoot more footage. With Roger on board, the project took on the magnitude of a hit documentary.

“Craig had spent a lot of time shooting on his own with a small hand-held camera,” Pippa says. “But he grew really enthusiastic after his mind-boggling experience with the octopus, so he called Roger and told him, ‘You have to come see what this octopus can do. She lets me watch her hunt and so much more.’ Roger showed up in Cape Town with his huge Red Dragon camera and managed to capture some of the octopus’s incredible natural behaviours.”

Netflix cements its foothold in South Africa and Nigeria

Netflix’s distribution of the documentary has helped the streaming giant cement its foothold on the African continent. South Africa and Nigeria have emerged as the on-demand video platform’s top locations for developing African-made content.

Netflix’s three African original series – Queen Son, Blood & Water and How to Ruin Christmas – were produced in South Africa, alongside the co-production Kings of Jo’Burg. The movies Seriously Single and Santana (a co-production with Angola) were also produced there, and there are more African films and series in the pipeline for Netflix.

Netflix has partnered with the Johannesburg-based Realness Institute in a bid to stimulate the production of local content. Together, they are funding Episodic Lab, a residency programme that is set to offer six screenwriters from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa the chance to write and pitch a series to Netflix.

The selected screenwriters will receive a $2,000 stipend per month for three months to cover their expenses as they develop their projects, which Netflix could pick up for production as an African original. As of 1 March, the programme had attracted the interest of 425 applicants.

Emotional ecology

Working with Netflix was “an amazing experience”, Pippa says, even though the greater part of the documentary was produced by the Sea Change Project, a nonprofit run by Pippa, Craig, Roger and several other friends. Sea Change aims to make the Great African Sea Forest a “global icon”. The film’s at times human-centric point of view and overly feel-good quality are all part of a strategy to raise awareness. The directors claim to be behind an “emotional ecology” movement meant to re-connect people with nature.

“I started free-diving in the kelp forest when I was living in Cape Town in my early 20s,” Pippa says. “It’s an incredibly beautiful, three-dimensional environment where you literally feel like you’re flying through an actual forest. In South Africa, we are very fortunate that the Great African Sea Forest is in relatively good shape. In other parts of the world, kelp forests are disappearing.”

This message about protecting a little-known ecosystem seems to have resonated with film academies the world over: the documentary has already scooped up more than 20 awards, including a BAFTA for best documentary at the ceremony held by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London on 11 April. At the upcoming Academy Awards, set to take place on 25 April in Los Angeles, My Octopus Teacher will represent Africa alongside the Tunisian film The Man Who Sold His Skin, which is competing in the best international feature category.

All the global attention has been a boon for Cape Town, which hopes to bring in more tourists thanks to the film. The city’s mayor, Dan Plato, made a smooth move when he publicly congratulated the documentary’s crew after they won a BAFTA. Cape Town previously served as the backdrop for Searching for Sugar Man, which received both a BAFTA and an Oscar for best documentary in 2013. My Octopus Teacher may soon follow in its footsteps.

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