SA's Pippa Ehrlich on getting ready for My Octopus Teacher's big night at the Oscars

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Director Pippa Ehrlich, My Octopus Teacher. (Photo: Supplied)
Director Pippa Ehrlich, My Octopus Teacher. (Photo: Supplied)
  • The South African documentary My Octopus Teacher has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
  • Director Pippa Ehrlich is currently in Los Angeles ahead of the prestigious ceremony.
  • According to Pippa, she's experiencing a lot of emotions right now, but can definitely feel the support from South Africa.

My Octopus Teacher was the first feature documentary she ever directed.

The magical story of a small octopus that befriends a diver in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean in False Bay captured the imagination of audiences and raked in the approval from critics worldwide. Now, just a few months after the film first premiered on Netflix, Pippa Ehrlich is walking among the giants in her field.

Currently, in quarantine in Los Angeles ahead of the 93rd Academy Awards this Sunday (02:00, Monday CAT), Pippa is experiencing a plethora of emotions.

"I'm feeling grateful and overwhelmed and amazed and proud. Very proud as a South African especially. I do have this feeling that the whole of South Africa is behind us. It's a huge privilege to feel like I'm representing this place that I love. So that's amazing," Pippa tells me via Zoom from her hotel room in the City of Angels, where people go to make their Hollywood dreams come true.

"I am able to walk around outside, and I've been for a few swims, which is nice. It's been an incredible life experience coming to the Oscars, having Netflix's publicity team behind you, speaking to fascinating people all over the world, organising dresses and shoes. It's all part of the adventure," she says, and quickly adds: "They have kelp forests here too."

"The first thing I'm doing after Sunday, whatever happens, is going on a bit of a kelp forest tour of the West Coast of California."

My Octopus Teacher tells the real-life Charlotte's Web-like tale that plays off in a kelp forest under the sea where Craig Foster creates a unique bond with an octopus, and the two become the unlikeliest of friends.

The film, which has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, most recently won the BAFTA for Best Documentary and is now in the running to take home the golden statuette at the most prestigious film award ceremony in the world.

President Cyril Ramaposha on Friday in a letter to the filmmakers said: "The documentary is storytelling at its best, with a deeply resonant conservation message. The team should be justifiably proud, as are we, that My Octopus Teacher has been nominated in the Best Documentary category for this year’s Academy Awards – a first ever for a South African documentary."

He added: "Conservation of our natural world, and our oceans in particular, is a national priority for South Africa. This documentary has opened a window into the natural beauty and diversity of South Africa’s oceans and marine ecosystems. Importantly, this documentary will encourage a greater appreciation and advocacy for marine conservation at a time when ocean degradation is a growing global problem."

My Octopus Teacher
My Octopus Teacher. (Photo: Faine Loubser/Netflix)

'What an experience'

"It's been a brand-new experience. Something I never dreamt would happen. It's definitely the hardest work I've ever done in my life. It was a big risk. To do this film I gave up a really nice, well-paid job to do a project which we had no funding for. We didn't know if we'd ever be able to finish it.

"I was pretty inexperienced at the time. Craig hadn't made a film in 10 years. But bit-by-bit, the story grew in strength, and we ended up with this phenomenal team of filmmakers in South Africa and other parts of the world. Some of the best editors, and directors, and executive producers from Netflix and Off the Fence all fell in love with the story and have supported us. What an experience."

During a time when the headlines are filled mainly with doom and gloom, the news of a South African documentary making waves internationally has been received with open arms.

"I think the whole world has had a really hard time recently, and I think people have been feeling isolated, and depressed in some cases, and frustrated, and trapped, and like they can't plan for the future, which is a scary feeling. It's out of our control. So, to be able to share a story of hope and finding meaning and the beauty of being this fragile human being on planet Earth, which is this miraculous place full of all sorts of life forms that deserve our respect and care, and for it to be a South African story makes me feel very lucky and very proud."

And, according to Pippa, the support from back home has crossed the ocean and is giving the team the encouragement they need right now: "Our whole team can feel the support from South Africa, and it makes a big difference."

Readers can follow live coverage of the Oscars right here on News24 from 02:00 on Monday, 26 April.

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Craig Foster declined all requests to be interviewed about the film.

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