Published first time at Mdamasr:
When I am anxious, or heavy, or feeling — like Mahmoud Darwish — that nothing pleases me, I usually put on a documentary about the lives of lions in central Africa, or wild horses in Mongolia, and I let it play in the background as I try to calm my nerves by writing or reading or indulging in a game on my phone. There’s nothing much to follow in such films; usually the producers pick a geographical location and send a crew to live there for months, and the result is hours of footage of various species coexisting in the same habitat, edited to create some kind of structure and accompanied by the deep voice of a narrator attempting to project human drama on daily life in the wild.
I’ve watched many nature films by virtue of my years of work in the documentary industry, and even though most of them are pretty similar, and rather redundant, playing them in the background often provides an air of tranquility and a certain delightful languor. However, Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which made its debut a couple of months ago, is a welcome divergence from the typical, pre-packaged format of nature documentaries, allowing us an unconventional glimpse into the lives of nature documentarians instead.
The protagonist is Craig Foster, a filmmaker who spent his life documenting wildlife in south and central Africa with his brother, Tom. Together, the brothers became a prominent duo in the world of nature documentaries, but after two decades working amidst nature — filming the creatures that roam the earth and sky — Craig sank into a work-related depression (an important lesson, reminding us that whatever your profession is, you’re never miserable because of the nature of your work but rather because you have to work in the first place).
Craig returns to his hometown of False Bay, South Africa, where he lives in a house overlooking the water. It is a spot with a rich and diverse marine life, and Craig soon begins a routine of swimming and freediving, until one day he meets a little octopus. The most beautiful thing about this film is that it is free of scenes where creatures devour one another, nor does it covertly focus on the demise of nature at the hands of the human race: it is simply the story of a friendship that develops between a filmmaker and this wondrous octopus.
Octopuses are shy; they usually hide whenever they sense a foreign presence. But as Craig’s visits become frequent, our little octopus begins to warm up to him. She reaches out an arm one day, and the first touch takes place. Gradually a relationship blooms: one can sense the joy when the two friends meet, and almost hear an intimate dialogue unfold as the octopus’s arms and Craig’s fingers intertwine.
An important element in the narrative is the tense relationship between Craig and his teenage son. Silence looms like a barrier between both of them, but the boy goes to the beach with his dad and eventually dives with him and meets the octopus too, and a dramatic triangle is formed, heightening the conflict.
The film is emotionally charged, wrapped in a mysterious cloud of poetry. Perhaps it’s simply the color of the bay’s water, but my eyes welled up twice as I watched, and so I warn you: it is not for the faint of heart. In other words, and as they often say in disclaimers, some content may be triggering.
However, if you’re not in the mood for a tear-jerker, we recommend another nature documentary, also on Netflix, and that is David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. As clear from the title, the film stars the British broadcaster and natural historian made famous worldwide through BBC series such as Life on Earth and later Planet Earth and Life, all of which documented animal and plant life across the globe, from seas and oceans to jungles, swamps and deserts, all the way to the frozen Arctic. https://www.youtube.com/embed/64R2MYUt394
Here, Sir Attenborough bears witness to shrinking biodiversity and the extinction of animal and plant species as a result of population growth. He gives his own personal account of this transformation, depicting images of locations he visited in the 1940s, and through archival footage from his programs we see how landscapes have gradually changed and certain creatures have ceased to exist as humans multiplied, consumption increased and resources dwindled. Moreover, Attenborough presents an insightful narrative on the rise of green parties and environmental activism as political action, and how this notion that began in the 1960s grew until every active political party had to have an environmental agenda as part of its platform. He also suggests a political solution for saving the planet, and like most western environmental activists, he divides the tasks: citizens of the global North are required to recycle and switch to smart cars, while citizens of the South must sacrifice developmental plans — keep living in mud houses and rely on solar energy — for the sake of maintaining biodiversity and protecting the ecosystem.
What’s new in the film, however, is that it confronts the audience with the bitter truth: neither industrial activity nor fossil fuels are destroying our planet; overpopulation is. Even if we stop using fuel and plastic and manage to save the sea turtles, life on earth cannot possibly continue with the global population growing at this rate, and so Attenborough’s main proposition is stabilizing it. But while autocratic regimes like the Chinese government have enforced policies to this end through coercion and violence, Sir Attenborough believes that enhancing education and healthcare is the only reasonable and humane way forward, using Japan as a successful example.
A self-proclaimed leftist, Sir David Attenborough currently has a net worth of US$35 million. He spent his life traveling across the world, visiting more places than one could possibly imagine. If we traced his carbon footprint, it would probably exceed that of an industrial city in central Africa. So I can’t help but envy him for being a son of the Great British Empire, which accumulated such great wealth early on that it could invest in a giant project like the BBC, which in turn funded all of the Sir’s dreams and films. Back when I used to work in documentary filmmaking, I would often pitch projects about wildlife, or sometimes even simple ideas like a short documentary about Egyptian donkeys. Such pitches were always rejected, though, and would often be ridiculed as well, and the channel would instead ask for a film about revenge killings in Upper Egypt, terrorism or the hijab. I eventually gave up my dream of working on nature documentaries, and gave in to envying people like David Attenborough instead as I watched their films.
Today, I find myself thinking that perhaps the reason why all nature documentaries are so redundant is because, for decades, this industry and format of filmmaking has been monopolized by white, western men. They copy one another without the slightest inkling of shame; we now have almost 100 years’ worth of documentaries all centering on the white explorer in his pith helmet and safari gear. Sometimes he’s in front of the camera, his face red with the effect of the sun, other times he’s behind it and we can only hear his voice, penetrating the landscape as he stealthily spies on the creatures inhabiting it, drowning in his hunter-fantasies of danger and adventure.
Sometimes, in such films, we catch a glimpse of the land’s native people. For example, in A Life on Our Planet, we see footage of him meeting with a hunter-gatherer tribe in central Africa in the 1950s, presenting them as an example of living in harmony with nature. The camera shows them in the background, like silent extras waiting for the day they’ll hold the camera, reclaiming the right to their land.