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‘My Octopus Teacher’: Swati Thiyagarajan on the Netflix documentary’s Oscars win

A still from Oscar-winning documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’   | Photo Credit: Netflix

When My Octopus Teacher first debuted on Netflix, viewers were unsure what to make of it from the title. Was it a sci-fi fantasy? An animation film?

But then, the word-of-mouth began, and the small project quickly grew into one of the most popular documentaries of 2020. Tracing the tender, almost mentor-like relationship between a sea diver and a common octopus in South Africa, the 85-minute long film is a poetic, visual feast that has managed to strike a chord with audiences worldwide.

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Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, My Octopus Teacher stars naturalist and documentary filmmaker Craig Foster, as he takes us through the wondrous tale in an underwater kelp forest.

Foster’s wife, Swati Thiyagarajan is also a filmmaker, environmentalist and journalist, who served as associate producer and production manager on the project. Originally from Chennai, Swati is renowned for her work as a conservationist, and is a core member of the Sea Change Project, that contributes to the long-term protection of South Africa’s marine environment.

Also Read: The complete list of winners at Oscars 2021

This week, My Octopus Teacher bagged the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 93rd Academy Awards, (it also won the BAFTA earlier) and Swati’s contribution to the film has been hailed in India, as an important step towards encouraging documentary filmmakers in the country.

Swati and the team of ‘My Octopus Teacher’ celebrating their BAFTA win earlier this month

Swati and the team of ‘My Octopus Teacher’ celebrating their BAFTA win earlier this month  

Talking to us from South Africa where she currently resides (she virtually celebrated the Oscars win as she couldn’t be in L.A.), Swati and her team are still waiting for the achievement to sink in, as she takes us through how the unique project was made, and what this international recognition means to them. Excerpts from an interview:

How was such an unique idea for the documentary first conceptualised?

Craig started to dive in the Great African Seaforest — at the southern tip of South Africa — everyday about ten years ago, when he needed to recover from facing burnout at work.

Prior to this, he had made three or four movies back-to-back; all big wildlife films with deadlines, deliverables, shoot schedules etc. By the time he was done, he had pushed himself too far and wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a filmmaker anymore.

The place where he was most happy was always the ocean. So in the process of doing that, he really immersed himself in the Seaforest ecosystem, and learnt how to track underwater, when he met his “octopus teacher”.

Craig Foster in a still from the documentary

Craig Foster in a still from the documentary   | Photo Credit: Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Then began the extraordinary year of being able to observe her life. There was no plan at the time to make a film. The ecosystem slowly revitalised and gave him back energy, and he started filming again really from an exploration study point of view. It was later in the process that we thought we had a story here; Pippa (the co-director) came on board, and it really started to crystallise.

It was Craig’s authentic, experienced story we wanted to tell; we didn’t design it around how a global audience might react. That there was this unbelievable response was staggering.

Why do you think the themes in ‘My Octopus Teacher’ have resonated so much with viewers?

I think while it’s a nature documentary in the broad sense, it has also come across as a love letter to nature as a whole, and the octopus being a symbol of that. It is a movie about deep connection, empathy, healing, belonging… and these are universal human emotions. It’s been more pronounced because of this tragic disconnected year we have all had as humans, isolating and distancing ourselves, and losing loved ones.

Were there any challenges faced during the deep underwater shoots?

Craig has been a filmmaker along with his brother for about 30 years now. He has always done his own camera work — and prior to this — he filmed sharks in a film called Sharkman and crocodiles in Into The Dragon’s Lair. So he is very adept at filming underwater.

Being a free-diver, he can hold his breath for longish periods of time, and also knows where to place a camera, the best angles for the light and picture, etc. We also had Roger, our director of photography, who is one of the world’s best underwater camera persons, go with him on several of the dives.

What was your role in the project as the associate producer and production manager?

As Craig is my partner, and I am involved in conservation and wildlife myself, he would share with me stories from his diving experiences everyday, and discuss the footage and photographs.

Swati with co-director Pippa Ehrlich and Craig Foster

Swati with co-director Pippa Ehrlich and Craig Foster  

Our executive producer Ellen Windemuth is an old friend of Craig’s, and had earlier made a film called The Great Dance with him. She too advised on the story and then we came up with a rough outline for the doc. The entire editing and filming all happened out of a room in my house, and I was involved through all of the processes.

Your film was the favourite in the category going into the Oscars ceremony; was the win expected?

It was still a tremendous surprise because our fellow nominees were superb films, and every doc had the right to win. So it was hard to just believe we would succeed. When they first announced the nominees, and we saw our clip up there, and then they announced the winner… we were so excited. It’s still sinking in!

What would you want audiences to take away after watching the film, now that it’s getting global exposure?

That we are wild, that we humans are an intrinsic part of nature... because we are nature. That we belong. That wild places and wild animals are infinitely precious. That our fellow non-human animals on the planet are a gift, and are on this same voyage of life as us. That bio-diversity is tremendously important and we need to rediscover our deep bonds with nature, which is in our DNA. That empathy and connection is key. And of course, that this great African Seaforest ecosystem is wonderful and worth long-term protection.

Swati with other members of the ‘My Octopus Teacher’ documentary team

Swati with other members of the ‘My Octopus Teacher’ documentary team  

What is next for you and Craig, any more film projects in the pipeline?

Nothing for a while, as stories have to flow organically. We are diving and swimming in the Seaforest everyday. The Sea Change Project which Craig co-founded, of which I am a part, is committed to telling stories, based in science and authentic immersive experiences. We will continue to share the joy and healing nature brings us, with as many people as possible.

Your win has created a lot of cheer in India as someone representing the country at the Oscars…

It’s lovely if it has created cheer. I reside in South Africa now, but most of my life was lived in India. Right now, I am so absolutely heartbroken at the completely awful situation in the country with COVID-19. The pandemic, in a large part, is because of our exploitation of the natural world. It’s most certainly my experiences in India in nature that shaped me, my ideas and thoughts; that’s the part of India I brought with me to this film.

What is your take on the support given to documentaries in India, and could a win like this influence it positively going forward?

We have some of the absolute best filmmakers in India in the documentary field, who are superb storytellers in wildlife, social and political spaces. The work is outstanding, so it’s disheartening to see not much support for documentary films in the country.

The thing is, we shouldn’t underestimate our audiences either. I remember when I was a student in Delhi at Jamia, all of the film festivals with documentaries ran to packed halls. There is this wilful blindness in the thinking that only commercial projects work.

Documentaries are dismissed as social subjects, and that’s incredibly short-sighted because they can be anything, from a protest filmed on a phone to a carefully-crafted wildlife film. There are too few grants, too few foundations, and it’s really sad because the talent is amazing and the raw materials for stories in India is limitless.

I don’t know if a win like this could make a difference, but the fact that today audiences consume films differently… it’s not just in theatres, but online, streaming platforms and other mediums. This is exciting because it gives everyone the opportunity to think out-of-the-box, reset things, and create funding for documentaries, because there is opportunity to screen them and reach audiences.

My Octopus Teacher is currently streaming on Netflix

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 1:57:41 PM |

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