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Lessons from an octopus teacher

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If you haven’t yet seen the hit documentary My Octopus Teacher currently streaming on Netflix, you might be living under a rock, much like the subject of the film. A phenomenon making waves around the world, it was directed by first-time filmmaker Pippa Ehrlich, who grew up in Johannesburg and currently lives in Cape Town.

While the documentary has been nominated for a string of awards, and won a number of them, the 33-year-old’s proudest moment so far was when her bobbatold her how much naches she was getting as people around the globe responded to the film with joy, amazement, and fascination.

“I’m forever changed,” said one person on social media, while ex-South African author Joanne Fedler wrote, “I recognise in it what I have never been able to achieve in all my years as an advocate. It’s the highest form of activism. This is what art is supposed to do.”

Ehrlich says she could never have predicted the response. “I knew we had a beautiful film and story, and I knew Netflix liked it. But I never expected this. It’s been incredible to reach so many people. The first week was overwhelming – we were getting an email every three seconds! It’s been a rollercoaster, and I feel deeply privileged to have had this experience.”

While the story is about one man’s relationship with an octopus, it’s also about so much more. “We wanted to expand people’s perceptions of the natural world,” she says. “We created a portrait of a creature that couldn’t be more different to us, that had her own miraculous way of being and special personality. And that’s true for every living thing. There’s much negative press about the environment. To frame your work as a story of hope … it has a much better chance of reaching hearts and minds.”

She and the film’s subject and producer, Craig Foster, are part of the Sea Change Project,a community of scientists, storytellers, journalists, and filmmakers who made My Octopus Teacher and are dedicated to raising awareness of the beauty and ecological importance of South Africa’s kelp forest, which they call “the Great African Seaforest”.

Ehrlich’s earliest memories of the ocean are at Boulder’s Beach near Cape Town, where her grandparents had a holiday home and where she first learnt to swim. In coming full circle, the film takes place in the same region. She’s now a “skindiver” (swimming without a wetsuit) who has been diving in the kelp forest every day for four years.

Her path to being part of the project was a long and winding one. “I was working at the Save Our Seas Foundation – a well-paying job that allowed me to interact with some of the best marine biologists on the planet and fly all over the world. But I felt in crisis – everyone I worked with had amazing stories of being in nature and I felt like a voyeur. I didn’t have my own experiences to share.” It’s a similar story to the one Foster tells in the film, of his own breakdown as he longed to immerse himself in the natural world.

“I met Craig in 2015. I’ve been diving in the Cape since my early 20s, and thought I knew this environment, but after that first dive with Craig, I realised I knew nothing. It was like putting on magical glasses. I discovered animals I didn’t know existed, and things I didn’t think possible. When going through this crisis, I asked him to teach me how to dive in cold water and track animals. It took me six months to learn to dive [without a wetsuit] for as long as he could.

“At first he was very cagey about the octopus – it was a precious thing that only he had experienced. Then one day he sent me a treatment [outline of the story]. I was sitting at my desk at this very scientific organisation and I started to cry. I didn’t expect it to resonate with me. Then, when I looked at the footage, I realised it wasn’t just a powerful story, but could also be a powerful film that could resonate with others.”

The week Foster asked her to make the film was the same week she had an interview for a Masters scholarship in the United Kingdom. “It was scary … I had to choose. I abandoned the scholarship that I had spent six months applying for, and gave up my stable job. We made the film in Craig’s attic and had zero production budget at first. Thankfully, the Sea Change Project managed to procure some funds, giving me a small stipend for the first two years.”

Ehrlich spent three months just watching footage of the octopus and the kelp forest that Foster had recorded. As the film came into focus, she and her team had to make brutal editing decisions about what to keep and what to cut. One such moment she would have loved to include was when a giant stingray swam over Foster, covering his whole body.

“It’s one of the most dangerous animals in the kelp forest and is the animal that killed conservationist Steve Irwin. Craig kept very still and filmed it. We wanted to include the scene, but it just didn’t fit the story,” she says. “Likewise, the beginning of the film was probably cut 25 times. Craig’s life is fascinating, but we had to compress it. Working with top natural history filmmaker [and fellow director] James Reed made this clear.”

Although she had created short films at her previous job, Ehrlich had never directed a feature film. “It was a baptism of fire,” she says, humbly adding that it’s almost unheard of for a film made by a first-time director to be bought by Netflix. She believes that every film that gets made is a miracle because of everything it takes to get it to that point.

“It was rejected over and over again. We took a long time to get the story right. It was sent to someone who had just joined Netflix. She watched it on a plane and her little boy climbed onto her lap to watch it, enthralled. That moment convinced her, as Netflix is always looking for projects that people can watch as a family. So it was miraculous. If that child had not been there, Netflix might not have taken it on.” While Netflix is “the dream”, it was also “terrifying to deliver to the most demanding broadcaster in the world. For three years all I did was dive, edit, and sleep.”

Turning to the recent parody of the film titled My Kreepy Teacher that has since gone viral, she says, “It really made me laugh, and they put in a huge effort. The artistry and creativity is fantastic. Everyone had been taking the film so seriously, which was quite intimidating. So it’s great to have a lighter take.”

While Foster makes swimming in the kelp forest look effortless, Ehrlich advises that people don’t just head out there. “It’s dangerous. Swim in a tidal pool first, train, and get used to the cold. The ocean is unpredictable.” Even as an experienced swimmer, she once had a frightening moment when she almost got swept onto rocks by an ocean swell.

To the thousands of people who want to bring the beauty of the film into their own lives, Ehrlich advises “carving out time to getting to know one aspect of nature. There is a concept of a ‘sit spot’ which is one place you visit every day. You observe and notice changes, and you start to feel like this place or animal or plant is a character in your life. It begins to take up more space in your mind and you become more curious.

“Don’t take your phone,” she emphasises. “Just not having your phone creates a huge space in your mind and heart. Our phones are rewiring humanity. The antidote to a synthetic reality is an organic reality, rooted in time spent in the natural world.”

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