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What the show ‘My Octopus Teacher’ taught me

Filmmaker Craig Foster has shown that one doesn't need half of Africa to make a grand nature film, a camera, a local patch/garden/forest, lots of curiosity, observation and patience are good enough

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
November 17, 2021 8:12:05 pm
Forget social distancing, when your octopus friend beckons. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

I finally managed to see Craig Foster’s Oscar-winning My Octopus Teacher and promptly saw it again. Foster might have learnt a lot from his octopus friend, but there are huge takeaways for anyone remotely interested in nature — and those trying to spread the message via media, especially on TV channels.

I would imagine that channels like National Geographic and Discovery would have a lot to take home and quietly ponder over after seeing this film. All they seem to be doing these days is making Hollywood-style nature blockbusters — where blood, gore, dismemberment, appalling violence, and the ever-present threat to us — are highlighted as, in series such as Animal Fight Club, overly melodramatic with killer voice-overs and music. “Survival experts” out in the wild seem firmly convinced that every living creature out there — in their home territories — is hell-bent on attacking us. The message coming through is clear: Mother Nature is a vindictive, unpredictable old witch armed with canines and talons, subject to ferocious temper tantrums and who is out to rip you apart, so, watch it. Sure, there are film-makers who have spent years in the field studying their subjects and producing exemplary films — but they seem to be as endangered as the animals they film.

Craig Foster’s ‘My Octopus Teacher’ won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Craig Foster has shown what can be done by nearly anyone with a camera in their local patch — or as in this case, in the small, 200 m patch of kelp forest near his home. You do not need half of Africa to make a grand nature film. But yes, there are other requirements, most of which today especially youngsters, professing to be interested in nature fall short of. First, you need curiosity and lots of it. You must be interested in the whys, wherefores and why-nots of the dazzling world around you. Equally important, there’s observation. Too many so-called nature lovers these days seem only to think in terms of lists and go off to national parks and sanctuaries — as if they were out shopping. So, yes you must tick off the “big five”, the bird roll-call must be longer than what it was last time… and, at a glance, you must be able to name a species, also its subspecies, and know what the bird ate for breakfast that morning, by the expression on its face: All this to be done instantaneously, so you can rush off to the next destination lickety-split and repeat the procedure.

Observation means spending hours just quietly watching — even when nothing seems to be happening — it’s about hanging around, waiting, wondering: day after day, hour after hour — and after hours, too. Only then will the subject of your observation begin to reveal what hitherto was its secret life and bring you a deeper understanding of what’s going on. It was only this kind of observation that made Foster realise that his canny octopus friend was actually thinking out her strategies and learning from each experience — for example, using him as a shield to help her hunt.

Then there’s persistence. You’ve got to be at it day after day. If you are following a particular animal or species, this is the only way to eventually win its confidence and allow you into its private world. Most importantly, it has to know that you’re non-threatening, for it is all too easy to break a trust that’s built up by a careless move.

Something as simple as feeding birds in your garden/terrace can prove equally rewarding. A gentleman I met in Delhi many years ago would give breakfast to crows every morning on his terrace by calling them down: each bird flew down only when called by name! He knew their family history: who was whose son and whether he was trying to take over his father’s territory, fascinating details like that which can only be revealed through persistence and observation.

I spent many hours observing the rhesus macaques inhabiting the Nicholson Cemetery next door (and got a book out of it!), and they’re not exactly my favourite animal. Apart from learning to recognise their calls: threats, or warnings that the monkey-catcher was around, there were other revelations. Hefty dons would sometimes goof around with thrilled toddlers — and this I realised was the equivalent of politicians kissing babies: they were doing it to cadge favour with the formidable matrons, whose approval heavily counted in their ascension to and retaining of power!

Apart from the crystalline photography, there was the serene pace of the film that made it so memorable. Of course, there was drama — the attack by the hilariously named pyjama shark — but also its aftermath, the slow eventual and astonishing recovery of the octopus. Foster believed that the little patch of kelp forest worked as a single living entity — with each creature playing its part — the Gaia concept. Scientists like Richard Dawkins might have issues with this: he believes that it’s just the genes’ demented ambition to propagate which made the entity they belonged to to behave the way it did. If that assisted the survival of the community, so be it: there was nothing deliberately altruistic going on.

The most rewarding part of such interaction is when the animal accepts you and seems as curious about you as you are about it! Making physical contact is probably the high-point of this relationship: something which many scientists frown at. But when your octopus friend rushes up to give you an affectionate hug, social distancing rules do not apply!

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