The Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher is enjoying a second life in the wake of its Oscar nomination. Indeed, it seems to be the most popular of all the nominees, no doubt in thanks to Netflix’s heavy push in visibility, but also because it is the most sentimental and storied. The film chronicles a bond formed between Craig Foster and the octopus he visited every day for about a year.

Having a focus so narrow and intimate, unlike others in the category which have to convey years’ worth of information and multiple perspectives, the film is able to shape moments in the octopus’ life into a narratively satisfying experience, as well as an informative one.

One of the ways the film accomplishes this is through the use of the tried-and-tested method of set-up and pay-off. This is, of-course, when a film sets up an element of the story, so that it may later re- enter the film, and satisfyingly pay off the promise made by its first appearance. For instance, in Ghostbusters, during the team’s first job, Egon makes a dire warning not to cross the streams as it could be extremely dangerous. Later, the team must resort to crossing the streams to defeat an otherwise invulnerable enemy. Set-up and pay-off. Having an element like this be properly hinted at early in the film is key to making a documentary match the satisfying style of narrative film, of special importance to a documentary with so simple a subject as My Octopus Teacher.

The film has two clear examples of this sort of set-up and pay-off. The first of these is highlighted the moment we first meet the octopus that is the subject of the film. We see a strange mass of shells and rocks, eventually it collapses and reveals an octopus underneath. Craig, the narrator, makes sure to acknowledge that this behaviour is out of the ordinary, and finds ‘her’ somewhat mysterious. We’re left asking; “What was she doing?”. A little later we get the second set-up, the first shark attack. We see the ways in which the octopus evades attack, the merciless attacks of the sharks, and the prolonged healing period, which presents further opportunities for the octopus to be attacked again.

These two set-ups pay-off in a single encounter. The second time the sharks attack, much further along in the runtime, we know the danger our friend is in. So it is all the more exciting when, unexpectedly, the mystery of the shells is revealed. We discover that the octopus uses the shells and
rocks as a full body shield, and manages to subvert our fears, knowing what a shark attack means, when this ingenious self-defence staves off the attackers pretty effectively. Our admiration for the ingenuity of the octopus reaches not only a new height here, but a satisfying and complete closure on what is the point of the entire film; to see and admire the octopus as Craig does.

Documentaries must pay careful attention to what footage they’ve captured could best be reincorporated to make the project not just educational, but emotional too.

My Octopus Teacher: How Documentaries Tell Stories
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