What would happen if you invited an octopus into your home?
That is the question scientist David Scheel asked and director Anna Fitch followed in the film “Octopus: Making Contact.” The 2019 PBS Nature documentary kicks off the International Wildlife Film Festival on Saturday with a screening and extra programming for pass holders.
The now-virtual IWFF runs April 18-25 and features more than 80 films, a majority of which are free to stream the week of the festival.
“Octopus: Making Contact” is packed full of fascinating facts about octopuses, but it’s just as much about relationships and connection as it is about science.
Octopuses are one of the most intelligent species on the planet. They’ve been documented using tools, navigating complex mazes and solving puzzles. Until recently, the soft-bodied mollusks were thought to be mostly solitary creatures, but new research is looking at the extent to which they can recognize faces and interact with other individuals.
Fitch and executive producer David Allen reached out to Scheel, a marine biologist and professor at Alaska Pacific University, after reading about his idea to bring an octopus, and the massive tank of saltwater it would need to live, into his home.
“He was studying the idea that octopuses may in fact be social under some circumstances,” Fitch said. “That was really the core bit of natural history intrigue that sparked our desire to reach out and contact him.”
The film follows Scheel and his teenage daughter Laurel as they care for and observe Heidi, a day octopus, meaning she’s active during daylight hours. The team spent months embedded in the Scheel’s home, documenting their every move with Heidi.
“Like Heidi, we became part of the family. We were camped out in his basement,” Fitch said. “It was an intimate experience on many levels.”
Throughout the film, Scheel spouts off seemingly endless fascinating facts about octopuses and uses Heidi to demonstrate. For example, octopuses can change colors to match their surroundings. And because they have no skeleton, they can squeeze through small spaces and mold their body to fit in any shape.
The film takes on almost surreal visuals at certain points. As Heidi floats along, it’s almost as if the tank and water disappear around her, leaving her gracefully suspended midair, reminiscent of the dreamlike paintings of Salvador Dalí.
“That’s just framing and lighting, but quite laborious lighting, not natural lighting,” Fitch said. “Filming in tanks is a game of avoiding reflections. It’s pretty complicated.”
They had to create custom rigs for their cameras so they could move around easily, but Fitch said they were able to capture the lucky shots because they were at the house all the time.
“The sun would hit the tank and throw a rainbow somewhere or Heidi would move through the lighting and cast a shadow of herself on the wall,” Fitch said. “We were just there opportunistically to capture those things.”
In many ways, Heidi is treated more like a family member or pet than an at-home experiment, and watching a scientist interact with his subject matter in that way is refreshing.
When Scheel or Laurel approach the tank, Heidi floats over to greet them. She wraps her tentacles tightly around their arms and fingers, clinging to them in what looks like a show of affection. In the end, they’re convinced she is looking back at them through the glass, recognizing Scheel as a different person than his daughter.
While Laurel wasn’t originally supposed to be a main character, she became just as intrigued with Heidi as her father and ended up helping him with the experiment.
“It created a bond with her and her father as much as it created a bond with her and Heidi, and watching that point of connection blossom with a parent and their teenage child was an interesting part of human natural history,” Fitch said. “I feel like I watched Laurel grow up as I watched Heidi grow up.”
Scheel’s goal was never to publish a paper or an article through the experiment, and Fitch said he was more surprised at the non-scientific results he found.
“He was really happy with how Heidi brought dynamic joy and fun into his family life,” Fitch said. “It was a very different type of experiment.”
She hopes the film can deepen compassion, curiosity and understanding of the natural world, which she said is the first step to protecting it.
“For people who already loved octopuses, they can enjoy the film and fall in love with Heidi, and for people who never thought about marine invertebrates before, hopefully they have a sense of awe and respect that they never had.”
For a full schedule of films and programming or to purchase a virtual pass, visit wildlifefilms.org.