SA's My Octopus Teacher takes home the Oscar: 'A huge privilege to represent this place I love'

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Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed attend the 93rd Annual Academy Awards at Union Station on 25 April 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images)
Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed attend the 93rd Annual Academy Awards at Union Station on 25 April 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images)
  • South Africa's first ever Netflix original documentary, My Octopus Teacher, has won an Oscar.
  • The film beat four other remarkable documentaries to take home the coveted statuette.
  • "I'm feeling grateful and overwhelmed and amazed and proud. Very proud as a South African, especially," said director Pippa Ehrlich.

It was an intimate story of a man finding solace in the ocean and befriending a curious sea creature.

Their unique bond grew in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean in False Bay, South Africa. When Craig Foster decided to capture the story in a documentary, he didn't know it would, months later, take home the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 93rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

The unique pandemic-era Oscars were broadcast live from a train station, honouring films few saw in movie theatres, and reuniting Hollywood's A-listers for the first time in more than a year due to Covid-19.

Directed by James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich, the heartwarming South African story stole the hearts of the world and in the early hours of Monday, took home the coveted golden statuette. My Octopus Teacher was nominated alongside The Mole Agent (Chile), Collective (Romania), Crip Camp (US), and Time (US).

"I know there are many South Africans awake watching right now. In many ways this really is a tiny personal story that played out in a seaforest at the very tip of Africa, but on a more universal level I hope that it provided a glimpse of a different type of relationship between human beings and the natural world," Pippa said on stage at the glitzy event.

Speaking to News24 from her hotel room in Los Angeles shortly before the big night, Pippa said she was 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, who gave up a well-paying job to tell the story of Craig and the octopus, says the adventure she's been on has been surreal: "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. 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."

Along with a slew of prizes won at various film festivals around the world, My Octopus Teacher has also won the Bafta Award for Best Documentary and the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Documentary Motion Picture.

President Cyril Ramaphosa 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."

ALSO READ: All the 2021 Oscar winners

Directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed pose in the
Directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed pose in the press room with the award for best Documentary Feature for "My Octopus Teacher" at the Oscars.

Where it started

The story first started when Pippa met Craig in early 2015. They both went diving together with a mutual friend: "It was just this incredible experience and I really didn't know what I was in for. I'd been diving in Cape Town since I was about 21, so by the time I met Craig I spent almost 10 years exploring this kelp forest.

"I thought that I knew it very well, but that first dive I realised very quickly that he was looking at this place in a way I haven't seen before. He could see details that I had never noticed. On that very first dive, I saw animals I've never seen before; I saw patterns that I've never seen before. I got close to animals in a way that I actually didn't know was possible.

"I think it was about a year later that I actually started diving with him regularly and he agreed to teach me to track underwater and it was about six months into that process that we kind of became friends. He knew that I was interested in filmmaking and that I had made some short films and he asked if I'd like to help with My Octopus Teacher. We didn't even know it would be called My Octopus Teacher.

"I realised I really wanted to make a film and I wasn't sure what it would be about, but because I was working in marine conservation that made sense to me. We had a very, very small crew. This film was very much made out of Craig's attic. I didn't really have an alternative income, so it was a huge leap of faith to resign from my job and commit myself 100 percent to making this thing. We had absolutely no guaranteed outcome of whether we'd even be able to finish it."

My Octopus Teacher is available to stream on Netflix.

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