Apes on film

Posted on October 1, 2011


In the last couple of years there seems to have been an influx in the number of films released in mainstream cinemas about primates. Maybe it’s because I’m studying these incredible creatures they are on my radar more than anyone else’s.

First there was the documentary about Nénette, a 40-year-old female orangutan at a Parisian zoo (2010) ; then came the excellent James Marsh documentary Project Nim (2011) a chimpanzee raised from infancy as a human-child, taught sign language and then abandoned during adulthood by the scientist who wrenched him away from his birth mother. And a few months ago the summer blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes, thankfully using Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).

Rachel Mayeri's Primate Cinema: Apes As Family

Now a primate film has been made specifically for primates. The LA visual artist Rachel Mayeri is the brainchild behind the project Primate Cinema, a series of video experiments that translate primate social dramas for human audiences.

Apes as Family is a dual-screen installation. The right-hand screen shows a sort of chimp soap opera – with chimps played by humans in fancy dress costumes – and the left-hand screen shows the reactions of captive chimps to a screening of the ape drama.

Mayeri says: “The larger goal as an artist was that, if I did make a video that both chimps and humans could understand, we could triangulate a little bit about what a chimp’s mind is like – understand a continuum between us.”

As I learn more about science and how results can never really prove anything to be 100 accurate (Null Hypothesis), studies involving behaviour will for some purists in the field be seen as anecdotal rather than empirical. Chimpanzees are not able to communicate verbally with us in a common language so I doubt we will ever know what they are really thinking and there’s a danger that data collected will be viewed as anthropogenic.

captive ape at Edinburgh Zoo

Mayeri calls chimpanzee display behaviour “a form of theatre” – she says: “They really like Teletubbies,” she says, and they begin grooming each other when shown chimpanzee documentaries.

The rule of parsimony is to look for the most straight forward answer which in this case would be the chimps are grooming each other as they would do on any other day regardless of whether the film is showing or not.

The 20-minute ape-house flick depicts a day-in-the-life of a “city ape”. The character is played by a four foot eight inch professional actor in an animatronic chimp suit. After a long day in the jungle our protagonist comes home, cracks open a beer and sits down to watch TV (which incidentally shows all primate programmes).

Mayeri screened the film for the chimpanzee community at Edinburgh Zoo (using a special animal-proof TV, chimps are five times stronger than man) and filmed their reactions.

She said: “There were two females, Eva and Pearl – who were in fact the best viewers during testing – who were both in estrous [in heat]. And when we finally had the big premiere they were … otherwise engaged.”

I’d be interested to see if researchers at the zoo publish a paper on the captive chimps’ reaction to this film and what conclusions if any they come to.

In the meantime here’s a trailer. The film is being screened in London at the Arts Catalyst from 19th October to 13th November.