Review: ‘My Octopus Teacher,’ starring Craig Foster

April 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Craig Foster and Rosetta in “My Octopus Teacher” (Photo by Tom Foster/Netflix)

“My Octopus Teacher”

Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed

Culture Representation: Taking place off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, the documentary “My Octopus Teacher” features white South African filmmaker chronicling his year-long journey of observing and befriending a female octopus named Rosetta living in a kelp forest.

Culture Clash: The octopus Rosetta frequently encounters dangerous predators, such as pyjama sharks.

Culture Audience: “My Octopus Teacher” will appeal primarily to people interested in nature documentaries that have visually immersive cinematography and emotionally moving examples of how humans and animals can bond with each other.

Rosetta in “My Octopus Teacher” (Photo by Craig Foster/Netflix)

Nature documentaries about humans who befriend or grow close to animals tend to be about mammals. And in animated films with underwater creatures, the octopus is rarely the star. The documentary “My Octopus Teacher” tells a distinctive and memorable tale of how a filmmaker formed an unusual friendship with an octopus that taught him more about life than he expected. It’s a movie that’s unabashedly sentimental but also thoroughly entertaining and educational.

Directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, “My Octopus Teacher” was eight years in the making, but the footage in the movie is about how South African documentary filmmaker Craig Foster observed and eventually grew close to a female octopus during an approximately one-year period. Foster named the octopus Rosetta, and he visited her every day in False Bay, off the coast of his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. Foster, whose specialty is nature documentaries, produced “My Octopus Teacher,” and he was inspired to film in the kelp forests that he remembered playing in as a child.

The documentary’s stunning cinematography by Foster and Roger Horrocks completely immerses viewers in the underwater kelp forest that is Rosetta’s domain. At first, the octopus is wary and mistrustful of Foster, but she eventually figures out that he won’t hurt her, and she learns to trust him. There’s a breakthrough moment when she reaches a tentacle out to him, like a handshake.

And much later, their bond is strong enough where she lets him cradle her in his arms like a baby. There’s very much a “cute” factor to this movie that will delight people of all ages and especially people who have a fondness for animals. What’s also unique about the movie is that, unlike most animal documentaries that focus on a family of animals, “My Octopus Teacher” is only about one animal. It’s mentioned in the film that an octopus, by nature, tends be a loner.

“My Octopus Teacher” shows how the intelligence of an octopus is much higher than a lot of people might think it is. In the documentary, Foster (who gives constant on-camera and voiceover narration throughout the film) says that an octopus has approximately the same intelligence as a dog or a cat. But Rosetta gets herself out of predicaments in such a way that will make people think she’s smarter than the average octopus.

Foster’s underwater excursions were unusual for a documentarian because he refused to wear a wet suit or a scuba tank. As he explains in the documentary, “Having a scuba tank is not optimal for me. I want to be more like an amphibious animal. Instinctively, I knew not to wear a wet suit. If you really want to get close to an environment like this, it helps tremendously to have no barrier to that environment.”

The narration of “My Octopus Teacher” is deeply personal, since Foster tells his story like someone giving testimony about a life-changing experience. Thanks to skillful editing from Ehrlich and Dan Schwalm, footage that’s shown is an effective match to what he recounts in his storytelling. Foster says that around the year 2010, he got burned out from making films in exotic but harsh locations (such as Africa’s Kalahari Desert, where he filmed “The Great Dance”) and was experiencing stress-related anxiety. And so, he decided that he would go back to the kelp forests of his childhood for a more relaxing underwater environment.

As Foster tells it in the documentary, he didn’t expect that he would become so personally attached to this octopus. By his own admission, he became “obsessed” with Rosetta’s well-being and what she was up to on a daily basis. It’s very clear that Foster became emotionally attached to the octopus as someone might be for a pet that doesn’t live in the home.

Of course, life for Rosetta wasn’t all happiness and joy. She was under constant threat from predators, with the most dangerous being pyjama sharks. A nature documentary is almost required to show chase scenes that could end in life or death. And “The Octopus Teacher” certainly delivers on this type of suspense.

There’s also a segment early on the film when Rosetta is scared off because Foster accidentally dropped a camera near her. His sudden lens also spooked her and she ran off and abandoned the den where she was living. Foster than had to learn how to track down an octopus in this vast environment.

He comments in the movie about this investigative mission: “You have to start thinking like an octopus. It’s like being a detective. You just slowly start getting all of your clues together. And then I started to make little breakthroughs.”

Some of the clues involved tracing Rosetta by the type of discarded food she was likely to have left behind. And the strategy works. Foster’s elation at reuniting with Rosetta after a week of not seeing her is almost palpable through the screen. And the octopus’ reaction is also a sight to behold.

“My Octopus Teacher” was absolutely designed to pull at people’s heartstrings. The lively musical score from Kevin Smuts hits all the right emotional buttons. And Foster gets teary-eyed in a few moments of the film that will also make a lot of viewers cry too.

If there’s any main criticism that people might have of the movie it’s that there’s too much narration. And some viewers might think that it’s a bit too anthropomorphic when Foster (who is not a scientist) tells viewers what Rosetta was feeling. However, the flip side to that argument is Foster spent a year developing a close bond to this octopus, so he’s entitled to his opinion. Some cynics might also snipe that the documentary is a promotional vehicle for the Sea Change Project, a diver community that Foster co-founded and which is mentioned in the movie’s epilogue.

Even without the sentimentality of this story, “My Octopus Teacher” has lessons in humility that people can learn when it comes to human beings’ tendency to underestimate the intelligence of other animals. The end of the movie shows how Foster’s friendship with Rosetta affected his relationship with his son Tom, who was a teenager at the time this documentary was filmed and who appears briefly in the movie. “My Octopus Teacher” is such an emotionally stirring film, it’s bound to have an effect on viewers too.

Netflix premiered “My Octopus Teacher” on September 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Dave Not Coming Back,’ starring Don Shirley, David Shaw, Ann Shaw and Theo Dreyer

November 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dave Shaw in “Dave Not Coming Back” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Dave Not Coming Back”

Directed by Jonah Malak 

Culture Representation: Taking place in South Africa, the documentary “Dave Not Coming Back” features an all-white group of people discussing the 2005 tragic deep-water diving death of Australian diver David “Dave” Shaw.

Culture Clash: Shaw and several other divers had been on a mission to recover the body of another diver who died in 1994, despite warnings that this mission would be dangerous.

Culture Audience: “Dave Not Coming Back” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries about deep-water diving that combine archival footage, original interviews and re-enactments.

A scene from “Dave Not Coming Back” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The documentary “Dave Not Coming Back” (directed by Jonah Malak) takes a harrowing look into the tragic death of 50-year-old Australian diver David “Dave” Shaw, who died in 2005 in Boesmansgat, a notoriously deadly freshwater cave in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. The title of the movie refers to the note that was written during the dive to let the other divers know what happened to Shaw. What’s different about this deep-water film is that this fateful journey in Bousemansgat (which means “Bushman’s Hole” in English) is recreated on film by including one of the divers (Don Shirley) who narrowly escaped death during this dive. It’s very unusual for a survivor to be willing to recreate this devastating event for a movie, but people can have different ways of dealing with trauma.

The documentary includes some basic education about deep-water driving: Although someone can dive into deep water at a rapid pace, coming back up has to be much slower, due to oxygen levels and pressure that can do bodily damage if someone ascends too quickly. Decompression illness, also known as “the bends,” occurs when tiny air bubbles form in the blood and can result in permanent damage to the body or death.

Decompression illness is what happened to Shirley, who was one of Shaw’s closest friends and still feels the effects of not being able to save Shaw on that fateful day. The diving excursion (which happened on January 8, 2005) wasn’t for thrills but had a serious purpose: to recovery the body of Deon Dreyer, a 20-year-old diver who died in Bousemansgat in 1994. His body remained missing until it was discovered by Shaw, 10 years later while he was on a diving trip there.

Bousemansgat is treacherous for divers because of how deep the water in the cave can go. As of this writing, the longest on-the-record depth that a diver has reached in Bousemansgat is 282.6 meters, which equals 927.2 feet, in a feat achieved by Nuno Gomes (a Portuguese-South African diver) in 1996. In October 2004, Shaw planned to do a deep dive of about 270 to 280 meters in Bousemansgat. A dive that is 270 to 280 meters can take as little as 17 minutes to dive down, but as many as 12 hours to come back up.

Shaw comments in 2004 video archival footage that’s shown in the documentary: “I had no expectation to break the world record for death. The aim was to explore. When I looked off to the left, that’s when I saw the body that had been lost 10 years earlier.”

With the permission of Dreyer’s family (Deon Dreyer’s father Theo Dreyer is interviewed in the documentary), a team of experienced divers that included Shaw and Shirley returned to Bousemansgat on January 8, 2005, to recover the body. Shaw wanted to document the dive, so he wore a helmet with a video camera secured at the top of the helmet.

Derek Hughes, one of the divers on this trip, says in hindsight that Shaw’s decision to wear a helmet might have been a mistake that sealed his fate on the dive. In an interview for the documentary, Hughes says that Shaw not only wasn’t used to wearing a helmet while diving, but also the helmet was very bulky because it had to house a video camera. Shaw’s unfamiliarity with wearing a helmet while diving, along with the helmet getting in the way when Shaw tried to untangle some wiring that was tied to Deon Dreyer’s body, turned out to be the main reason why Shaw got stuck underwater and died.

Hughes comments, “It plays on my mind sometimes. Was the desire to document the whole dive partly responsible for what happened? That makes those feelings of guilt a real issue.”

The underwater video that Shaw recorded during the dive also recorded his death. Shirley calls it a “snuff video” that he vehemently fought against being shown on TV newscasts. Shirley is seen on camera advising the “Dave Not Coming Back” filmmakers at which point they should cut off the underwater video footage that Shaw recorded if the filmmakers chose to use any of the footage in the documentary. They follow that advice.

Although “Dave Not Coming Back” shows the moment when Shaw found the wiring that would end up being the catalyst for his death, the documentary wisely does not include any footage of Shaw dying. It would be extremely tacky and unnecessary exploitation if any of that death footage was in the movie. As for the recreation footage of the diving trip, it’s respectfully done, so that viewers can get a sense of how much of an enormous challenge it was to go on this diving mission. The excellent cinematography of Marwan Haroun gives a stunning and immersive experience of what it’s like to go on a diving mission in this enchanting but treacherous environment.

Even with eye-catching scenes in the film, “Dave Not Coming Back” is mostly made worthwhile because of the participation of Shirley and other people who were part of the diving team on that fateful day. Shirley shares fond memories of Shaw, by saying things like: “I never had a brother. Dave felt like a brother.” He also mentions that he and Shaw had a special bond because they were so alike in many ways, such as how they suited up for a dive and their striking physical resemblance to each other.

Theo Dreyer also felt a special connection to Shaw because, as he says in the documentary, Shaw reminded him of his son Deon: “Dave is one of the few people I compare to Deon. The similarities … were frightening. He [Dave Shaw] tried to do me a favor and ended up not coming back. That’s extremely intense.”

Other people interviewed in the film include divers who were on this trip: Stephen Sander, Peter Herbst, Mark Andrews, Dusan Stojakovic (who died in a diving accident in 2017), Truwin Laas, Petras Roux, Lo Vingerling and Andre Shirley (Don Shirley’s wife). Also interviewed are Ann Shaw (Dave’s widow); Dr. Jack Meintjies (a diving medical expert who is medical director of Divers Alert Network Southern Africa); and diving instructor Gerhard Du Preez.

“Dave Not Coming Back” isn’t all gloom and doom about Shaw’s death. The archival footage of Shaw shows him to be an adventurous and generous diver who was well-respected by his peers. This movie does a very good job of honoring the life that he led, while also giving a respectful way for the survivors to express their points of view. Malak keeps the pace and the tone of the movie consistently on the passion for deep-water diving, but “Dave Not Coming Back” is also a cautionary tale of how someone’s life can be cruelly taken away during this high-risk activity.

Gravitas Ventures released “Dave’s Not Coming Back” on digital and VOD on November 10, 2020.

2019 Miss Universe Pageant: Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi crowned the winner

December 8, 2019

by Yvette Thomas

 Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi is crowned Miss Universe at the 2019 Miss Universe competition in Atlanta. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Fox)

Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi  was crowned Miss Universe 2019, in a ceremony that took place December 8 at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. Fox had the U.S. telecast of the show, which was hosted by Steve Harvey. Former beauty-pageant queens Olivia Culpo and Vanessa Lachey provided commentary, while Ally Brooke (of Fifth Harmony fame) was the show’s musical performer. The annual Miss Universe ceremony (now in its 68th year) is produced by the Miss Universe Organization.

The new Mouawad Power of Unity crown made its debut at the ceremony this year. According to Mouwad,  the crown was created with 18-karat gold and handset with more than 1,770 white diamonds and three golden canary diamonds. The crown’s centerpiece is a shield-cut golden canary 62.83 carat diamond.

Contestants from 90 countries and territories were at the pageant, including Swe Zin Htet of Myanmar, who was the first openly lesbian contestant to compete for the Miss Universe title. Ultimately, she did not place in the Top 20. Bangladesh and Equatorial Guinea made their Miss Universe debuts this year.

The all-female panel of Miss Universe 2019 judges were:

  • Gaby Espino, Venezuelan actress
  • Sazan Hendrix, American businesswoman and social media personality
  • Riyo Mori. Miss Universe 2007 from Japan
  • Cara Mund, Miss America 2018[39]
  • Bozoma Saint John, American businesswoman and marketing executive
  • Crystle Stewart, American actress and Miss USA 2008
  • Paulina Vega, Miss Universe 2014 from Colombia
  • Olivia Jordan (only as preliminary judge). American actress, model, and Miss USA 2015

Internet voting from the public returned after a two-year absence. The public Internet voting was for the contestants who placed in the Top 20.

Here are the Top 20 contestants of the 2018 Miss Universe pageant:

Zozibini Tunzi, Miss South Africa — Winner
Madison Anderson, Miss Puerto Rico — First runner-up
Sofía Aragón, Miss Mexico — Second runner-up
Gabriela Tafur, Miss Colombia — Top 5
Paweensuda Drouin, Miss Thailand— Top 5
Maëva Coucke, Miss France — Top 10
Birta Abiba Þórhallsdóttir, Miss Iceland — Top 10
Frederika Alexis Cull, Miss Indoensia — Top 10
Kelin Rivera, Miss Peru— Top 10
Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA — Top 10
Cindy Marina, Miss Albania — Top 20
Júlia Horta, Miss Brazil — Top 20
Mia Rkman, Miss Croatia — Top 20
Clauvid Dály, Miss Dominican Republic — Top 20
Vartika Singh, Miss India — Top 20
Olutosin Araromi, Miss Nigeria — Top 20
Gazini Ganados, Miss Philippines — Top 20
Sylvie Silva, Miss Portugal — Top 20
Thalía Olvino, Miss Venezuela — Top 20
Hoàng Thùy, Miss Vietnam — Top 20