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Last time, I told you that you needed to read a book about flies. Today, it’s a movie about an octopus.

Recently released on Netflix, My Octopus Teacher is the movie you didn’t know you needed. I initially found the title a little odd, but at the end of the film—a little less than 90 minutes full of wisdom and grace—I’m not sure what else it could rightly be called, especially because the film is so full of lessons to be learned.

The literary critic Cleanth Brooks used the phrase “heresy of paraphrase” to suggest that poetry cannot be reduced in a summary. That term feels useful here—this is a documentary that needs to be experienced to take in its full meaning. In outline, it is a simple story: Craig Foster, a South African filmmaker, is burned out and comes home to the western cape of South Africa, called “the Cape of Storms.” Every single day for an entire year, he free dives (so no wetsuit, no oxygen) in the frigid and often stormy waters and explores the kelp forests and the creatures contained therein, including an octopus. An extraordinary octopus.

What Foster discovers over that year through the relationship that develops with the octopus is incredible—and incredibly moving.  Ultimately, he is restored to himself, to his son, and to his wider community. And the octopus models what a life well-lived can look like. Truly.

These are dark, tempestuous days—the water feels cold around us, swimming is hard. Many of us are very, very burned out. At my university, we’re in week nine of teaching all the ways all the time (in person and by streaming and asynchronously). It is exhausting. But I’m reminded to look around for the octopi—for the people of God all around me who are beautiful in all kinds of surprising and delightful ways. How grateful I am for my dear students who take such good care of each other and me, uncomplainingly wearing their masks and social distancing in the classroom—and making sacrificial choices outside the classroom to keep our whole community safe. (And with great success—our numbers have been incredibly low). I think of the colleagues from departments across campus who share one of my teaching spaces, a large auditorium on campus; whenever a problem arises, they have it already fixed (or called in to be fixed) by the time I show up for my 2:30 class. I remember the members of my senior citizen class who deluged me with kind notes of thanks after our last session.

What struck me about My Octopus Teacher is that, after a while, the viewer forgets that Foster is diving in very, very cold water: one only sees the beauty, yearns to connect with the octopus again. Foster’s eagerness to be with what he loves transforms the space itself into loveliness (even while acknowledging the very real dangers that still lurk). Worth remembering as the waters rise around us.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? I also now chair the department. And along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

6 Comments

  • Wonderful reflections. Thank you.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Recently saw that astounding film as well; I recommend as a follow-up the book by Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.

  • Henry Baron says:

    The film opens the soul up to wonder, and the mind to wonder how much we’re missing of the lives of other of God’s creatures because of our disconnect from nature. Thanks, Jennifer.

  • Harvey says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for the diverse, warm, and gentle ways you help us navigate the frigid waters of our time.
    Harvey

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Yes! Marveled through this whole beautiful film. Other creatures have strange being-ness that is beautiful to God–and to us if we pay attention.

  • Yes! I watched it and showed it to my eight-year-old granddaughter, who was captivated. The movie brought me to tears. It is one to simply experience and contemplate along with Foster, whose healing demonstrates to me God’s deep love for all creation and our connection with the whole.

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