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  • Writer's pictureWes Hazard

Watching this came in handy

It was all the rage on Twitter late last summer but I missed the initial conversation about the marine documentary My Octopus Teacher. I got the sense that people really loved it overall, with some people expressing disbelief/discomfort with the level of intimacy developed between the filmmaker and the octopus he spent a year visiting. I didn't think much of it either way but I finally sat down and watched the film in October and...

I was amazed. I totally loved it. I was fascinated by the underwater world, the octopus itself, it's daily struggles to survive, the bond formed by filmmaker with it, and the emotional/narrative arc. I teared up a little, I resolved to spend more time in nature just appreciating it, my convictions about how I want to be a father to my unborn children were affirmed. It was a lot. I went in for this movie hook, line, and sinker.

HOWEVER, as I've started to dig deeper into people's reactions I realize that as I was watching I didn't ask myself a lot of questions that maybe need to be asked and I have to admit that while I love and appreciate the fairly tale relationship (weird, but fairy tale) presented in the doc it all does seem to rest on a fallacy. That being the continual and complete attribution of human characteristics and intentions onto an essentially unknowable consciousness. We do not, and 1000% cannot know what or how an octopus thinks. I mean, we can't even do that for a chimpanzee and that animal is several orders of magnitude closer to us in every way. When I see the Octopus in the doc "playing" with fish it really does look joyous, and as far as I know the activity is not serving any immediate survival purpose, but all I and the filmmaker are doing is taking a resolutely octopus activity, running it through our mental index to find a somewhat similar activity based solely on appearances, and graphing that human experience (again based only on superficial resemblance), onto the inner life of a being which, as far as we're concerned, might as well be an alien. There's nothing "evil" or "wrong" with that, it's kind of how humans process the world, but it doesn't make that interpretation accurate in any way. It is fine to look at an octopus and think "it's playing!" and find joy in long as you always keep in mind that it can only be a nice thought and has no bearing on the needs/desires of a different species.

This excellent critique video discusses all of this at length (with some solid humor/sarcasm) and also dives into a whole slew of other contradictions, biases, omissions, problems with the film. Some of these are really important, esp with regard to colonial tendencies and environmental impacts. It's essential to keep these in mind because MOT is well-made and awe-inspiring and seductive and a lot of people, like me, will love it. I still love the way it made me feel and wonder is a beautiful thing. But its simply irresponsible to not consider the points raised here. I'm glad this was made. Watch the film and watch this. See how you feel for yourself.

P.S. Back in October, having watched My Octopus Teacher I, being Wes, soon sat down to dig into the Wikipedia article for the common octopus which led me to the page for for cephalopods, which includes basically 4 animals in 2 branches: the squid, the octopus, the cuttlefish on one side and the nautilus on the other, which is extremely helpful to know in case, hypothetically, you're ever in a high-stakes situation where you get asked about cephalopods.

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