Interview: My Octopus Teacher, co-director Pippa Ehrlich

Interview: My Octopus Teacher, co-director Pippa Ehrlich

Photo: Sea Change project

Ahead of its world premiere on July 15 in Thessaloniki, co-director Pippa Ehrlich talks about My Octopus Teacher, a film that chronicles the transformative year spent by conservationist and filmmaker Craig Foster in the company of an octopus off the southernmost tip of Africa.


South African director/journalist Pippa Ehrlich was already an accomplished diver before she met Craig Foster, himself a filmmaker and co-founder of the Sea Change/Great African Seaforest project. He was also an adviser on David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II.


Foster introduced Ehrlich to cold water diving, which entailed submersion into the bitterly cold Atlantic waters off Cape Town without a wetsuit. This part of the ocean is home to the Great African Sea Forest, which contains a dazzling and diverse array of marine life within its submerged giant bamboo kelps.


He also told her an extraordinary story that he wanted to make into a film, one that he had already partly shot, chronicling, over the course of a year, his evolving relationship with an octopus he encountered within the submarine terrain. 


“He sent me a treatment and I was absolutely blown away,” remembers Ehrlich, after Foster asked her to be involved in the project. “I was crying at my desk as I was reading it, so I immediately jumped aboard.” 


The footage that Foster shot (together at times with Blue Planet II cameraman Roger Horrocks) detailed the moving story of a curious octopus that overcomes all sense of wariness to befriend the human in the water. Over the next year he recorded a tale of gentleness and natural resourcefulness, but also of a nature red in tooth and claw, as predators (in the form of pyjama sharks) move in. It was also a story of reproduction and the sacrifices a mother will make to protect its young. Most of all, it was a personal account of an extraordinary and beautiful friendship, and one that effected profound psychological and emotional transformation in Foster.


But despite such rich base material the film needed a layer of counterpoint, Ehrlich reckoned. This would come in the form of an intense and moving interview with Foster, but not one conducted by her. 


“It was actually quite a humbling experience because I am a journalist before I am a filmmaker, and I have interviewed hundreds of people, but to interview someone who you know that well – it actually just doesn’t work.” 


At which point co-director James Reed was invited to join the production. “James is a very experienced and very talented natural history filmmaker,” comments Ehrlich. “The film was at a place that we were feeling good about. Then James saw it and he got very excited about too. He came on board and did three days of interviews with Craig, and that’s what gave the story that very authentic voice… If you are telling [your story] to a stranger you can speak from the heart.”


Ehrlich herself shot some fabulous extra footage, both in and out of the water. In one early shot, presented in crystal clarity, a bifurcated screen contains a glorious blue sky above and the generous, green watery depths below, like an expressionist canvas.

“Yes, what I ended up directing were the topside shots, and then all of the shots of Craig swimming through the kelp forest or swimming with seals,” Ehrlich agrees, adding how the experience on the film was just as transformational for her.


“When you go in every day, very regularly you see something that you cannot believe, even if you have been doing it for years, going into an environment like that every day and looking at it with a level of detail that most people don’t see at all.” 

 

This level of detail is what Foster is determined to maintain in overseeing the Sea Change project, which he co-founded with Ross Frylinck in 2012. While only 28% of global kelp forests can boast evidence of rude health, the Great African Seaforest is one that remains miraculously intact. But nevertheless, despite its vigour and importance within the local ocean ecosystem, the underwater forest is constantly under threat from global warming, overfishing and poaching.


Filming in such a magical, abundant and bio-diverse ecosystem naturally called for a sensitive approach on the part of the filmmakers. Which is why, like Foster, Ehrlich filmed without a wet suit and without breathing equipment, in “breath-hold” for up to two minutes at a time. “Craig and I had this idea that we wanted it to be a fully immersive experiential process, so we chose to shoot that way. Bubbles are very disturbing for animals, and scuba bubbles they really don’t like, especially octopuses. It freaks them out.”


“Neurologically and physically it is very, very powerful,” she adds of plunging into the icy waters. “You release a whole cocktail of neurochemicals into your system that makes you feel very good. And when you have been sitting at a computer editing for eight or nine hours, there is something amazing about jumping into a freezing cold ocean and blasting your mind clear.”