From Cape Town kelp forest to Oscar stage
Pippa Ehrlich travelled from the depths of Cape Town’s icy oceans to the heights of the film industry when she won the Academy Award for Best Documentary this week.
Ehrlich, whose father is Jewish, grew up in Johannesburg and lives in Cape Town. She and co-director James Reed were awarded the Oscar for their film, My Octopus Teacher, which made waves around the world when it was released by Netflix last year.
When 34-year-old Ehrlich spoke to the SA Jewish Report last year, she said her proudest moment of the film’s release was when her 90-year-old bobba, Rica Ehrlich, told her how much nachas she was getting as people around the globe responded to the film with joy, amazement, and fascination.
“She just couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘Every bobba should have such nachas from their granddaughter.’ It was a lovely moment for me,” recalls the filmmaker. One can imagine her bobba’s nachas at her granddaughter’s Oscar win.
Says Ehrlich, “I’ve had incredible support from the Jewish community, from my wonderful cousin, Danielle, and from Carina Frankal, who is the executive director of the Sea Change Project. Also my friend, Brian Bergman, who is a truly wise and wonderful man. There were many times where I felt out of my depth [when making the film]. I wanted to give up, and arrived on his doorstep in tears. Every time, he talked me through it, brought me back to myself, and sent me out to face the project again. You cannot do these things without having friends like that in your life.
“ORT Jet has also been so supportive,” she says. “Since I first got in touch with them more than a year ago, they’ve been super encouraging, helped me with all sorts of things that I needed. The South African Jewish community is an incredible community to be part of, and it’s wonderful to feel that support behind you.”
Ehrlich 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”.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report after the Oscar win, Frankal says that it has been a heady few days. She and her team have been working 18-hour days over the past few months as interest in the film went into overdrive.
Although she is thrilled with the Academy Award, for her “nothing can beat the impact of the Netflix launch of the film on 7 September 2020. The nachas we received from the outpouring of interest from all over the world was unequivocally incredible, and we were completely taken by surprise. We saw people connecting the film with their own story, and it touched people from all walks of life and all ages – even children. Art and poems were created, and our website crashed because of the amount of traffic. Emails came in literally every second, for days. We weren’t prepared for it. We had no idea, so it was quite overwhelming, but also wonderful.”
My Octopus Teacher has won more than 20 international awards, including Best Documentary at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) and Producers Guild of America Awards. President Cyril Ramaphosa personally congratulated the team for its nomination and award. It was Ehrlich’s first feature-length film, and as a first-time director, she told the SA Jewish Report that the experience of making it was “a baptism of fire”.
In the months since the film launched on Netflix, the organisation has been bolstered with more hands on deck, and it was better prepared should the film win the BAFTA and Academy Award. “The Oscar is a win for all South Africans all over the world,” says Frankal.
With a long career in filmmaking and media, Frankal has known Sea Change Project founders Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck for many years. When they invited her to join them, she was excited and intrigued.
“The mandate of using media to work towards ocean conservation was of great interest to me. I knew the calibre of their work, and saw it as an exciting opportunity.” It was largely voluntary and “we didn’t go into it with any funding, job security, or salaries. We just worked on projects we loved”.
Frankal hopes the Oscar will lead to more protection of the precious ecosystem that is the Great African Seaforest and other ocean environments. “If people can take the groundswell of interest and create meaningful and sustainable change, then we couldn’t be happier,” she says.
Like many others at the Sea Change Project, she started free diving five years ago. “At first, I would watch Craig and Ross go into the cold water, and I felt it wasn’t for me. But then I saw them transform in a positive way, and I thought it wasn’t such a leap to try this for myself. I’m now a die-hard cold-water swimmer and free diver. It’s been life-changing to have access to this underwater world on our doorstep. I feel awe and wonder at the privilege of exploring this environment.” She emphasises that anyone interested in doing it should do so safely, and seek others with more experience to guide them.
Frankal believes that My Octopus Teacher resonated with so many people because “it’s everyone’s story – we can all relate to how we feel when we connect with nature. It’s in our wiring. I also think Craig’s vulnerability in telling the story was powerful. He wasn’t being anything other than himself. The film also lifts the veil between us and nature – it reminds us that we’re not separate. We’re all connected, and we’re part of the natural world. This was Pippa’s conviction – that the film doesn’t have an overt conservation message, but rather, it’s about the human heart.”
In accepting the award, Ehrlich said, “In many ways, this really is a tiny personal story that played out in a sea forest at the very tip of Africa, but on a more universal level, I hope that it provided a glimpse of a different type of relationship between human beings and the natural world.”
Speaking to the media, she said, “In a difficult year in which many of us were stuck inside, feeling afraid and confused, a positive story that transports you to a magical world has a powerful appeal. Parts of this story are universal to almost every person on earth – love and friendship, and connection and hope. It’s about nature, but it’s also a very powerful, archetypal story that helps us to make sense of the world.”