PG Wodehouse famously said there were two ways to write a novel, as “a sort of musical comedy without music” or “going deep down into life and not caring a damn”. If one were to adapt this to documentary cinema, the two strains might be: films that show us wonders and films that reveal something about the human condition. Flaherty, Riefenstahl, Reggio, Attenborough would fit in the former category; Varda, Wiseman, Marker, Rosi in the latter; Herzog in both. Of the five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars (26 April), Garrett Bradley’s Time goes deep into life and James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher shows us wonders.
Bradley approached Sibil Fox Richardson in 2016. Sibil and her husband, Robert, had gone to prison in Louisiana for attempting to rob a bank after the family fell on hard times. Sibil served three-and-a-half years; Robert was sentenced to 60 years, and stayed in prison for nearly two decades while she campaigned for his release and brought up their six children. Bradley had intended to make a short film on her, but when Sibil handed over home videos she had shot, with close to 100 hours of footage chronicling their journey, she decided to make a feature instead.
Time (on Amazon Prime) lasts 81 minutes and spans 18 years. It begins with home video footage—Sibil and Robert’s young children goofing about, being driven to school, playing in the heat of summer and in the snow. A 20-something Sibil addresses Robert in one of her recordings: “Do you know how hard I am going to be smiling when you come back?” There’s a cut and on screen is a much older Sibil, with a streak of grey in her hair. In that instant, without saying anything or indicating the timelines, Bradley establishes a small lifetime of thwarted hopes.
Both the videos and the scenes shot by cinematographers Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach and Nisa East are in black and white, and even though the former is scratchy and the latter pristine, transitions from one to the other are often breathtaking. Cinema is at its most profound when it reckons with the passage of time. Seeing Sibil’s boys on their first day of kindergarten, then as young men with careers and dreams, underscores the social cost of the prison system, one which Sibil forcefully argues is inhumane and slanted against African-Americans. In tracking the 18-year wait for Robert’s release, Bradley shows how prison doesn’t end at the jail complex. Sibil speaks several times of her belief that slavery gave way to the modern penal system (this film is perfectly paired with Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, which explores similar themes). Time also lends intimacy and a human face to a subject most often covered in terms of numbers and laws and from the point of view of the incarcerated.
Towards the end of the film, just before the verdict, we see scenes from the home videos but in reverse. It’s a lovely instinctive bit of film trickery, almost as old as cinema itself. Having reached a moment of truth, time pauses, retreats, before moving forward again. “Time is what you make of it,” Sibil’s son Freedom says. “Time is unbiased. Time is lost. Time flies.” Bradley’s achievement is creating a work that speaks to all these statements.
My Octopus Teacher is also an intimate journey through, and past, pain. But unlike Time, its aim is not to explain our human world but to show us worlds unseen. The primary photographer and narrator is a South African naturalist named Craig Foster, who forms an unlikely bond with an octopus he comes across while diving in a kelp forest in the ocean. He meets the octopus every day over the course of a year, photographing the stunning underwater environment and the development of their relationship.
Foster tells us at the start of the film that he was burnt out and not communicating with his family at the time he took to diving. Though he returns to his troubled state at various points in the film, there isn’t much detail provided as to the kinds of problems he was facing or how his bond with the octopus helped him deal with those. But as long as the film is below water—which is a lot—it’s mesmerising.
My Octopus Teacher is a great primer on marine behaviour—everything from mating rituals to hunting and evading predators is captured in vivid detail. Foster can’t help but project human values on to the octopus. He feels “incredible pride for this animal that has been through impossible odds to get to this place”. The depth of emotion he feels is surreal at times—you could take lines from this and place them in a romantic film. “I fell in love with her but also with that amazing wildness she represented,” Foster says. And at another point: “All I could do at the time is just think of her.” The music, a mixture of overly sensitive strings and piano, perpetuates this mood.
Also read: Do octopuses have dreams?
Foster used to dive without oxygen or a wetsuit, so as to keep as little a barrier as possible between his environment and him. Even with this limitation, the footage he gathers is incredible. Riotously colourful and strange, the creatures he photographs live up to his claim that the marine world is “much more extreme than our maddest science fiction”. There are spectacular setpieces, like the attack on the octopus by a shark, with Foster tracking it from the moment of imminent threat to the eventual escape. Another scene shows the octopus as predator, hunting crab and lobster. The most cinematic moment, perhaps, is a scene where the octopus darts at a school of fish with no real intent to catch them. Foster guesses this is her playing.
My Octopus Teacher is a visually breathtaking nature documentary with a personal hook, a film that audiences found organically and loved when it premiered on Netflix in 2020. It’s only because of the Oscar nomination that one would think of comparing it with Bradley's film. Time, which won the US Documentary Directing Prize at Sundance in 2020 and landed on several best-of-year lists, is a dense, ambitious work. In terms of sophistication of technique and narrative, it is far ahead of Reed and Ehrlich’s film. Yet it’s also true that My Octopus Teacher provides the kind of cinematic rush that Time cannot. The Oscars will force a choice between the two, but both are worth seeking out as very different examples of intensely personal non-fiction.
Time is on Amazon Prime. My Octopus Teacher is on Netflix.